Emily and Jo write: “What follows is a six-poem sequence taken from the manuscript of a collaborative poetry collection, The Conversation. This collection follows a conversation held between three muses/lovers of Picasso: Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar and Françoise Gilot, as well as between ourselves: Emily Cooper and Jo Burns. The themes discussed are fidelity, abuse, the ownership of art, religion, grief, and motherhood.”
Dora, I wasn’t interested in his paintings of me so I encouraged him to draw a new model. Sylvette was shy, with a high ponytail, her portrait influenced Bardot. He tried every string he had in his hand to turn my eyes green, pull jerks out of me, calling me a monster of indifference. He was craving theatrical mayhem and his way of holding each marionette was sophisticated, so in need of attention. I’d broken some code and it drove him insane that he couldn’t place me where he wanted. With each pull I let the strings fray by refusing to dance to his tilted hand. Of course, unsurpisingly, he tried to bed her but that young girl wouldn’t even sit for nudes. Later, inspired, she became a painter herself and remembered him like a gracious father. To capture the ones not controlled from his wires, he immortalised them instead as goddessses where they moved from easel to be hung up high on a wall, never falling to the floor to lie as doormats. And when I heard the news about Marie-Therese, in a noose, then Jaqueline, tragedies which could have played out in theatres with puppets at the Acropolis, I admit that I felt a new, stronger, connection, to the artist who lived on without him. You. I sold La Femme Fleur. I couldn’t bear to look at something that was never me from the start. Dora, he didn’t paint us as we were, just what he could see in his own heart.
Hot House Flowers
Today I re-potted my aloe vera plant It had spawned seven babies Shoved in close beside their mother They didn’t have the space to breath Shaking them loose I dislodged their roots Lost networks that bound them To their origin. Françoise, it’s not easy To be wrenched away. I tried hard To place the babies in new pots Gently filling around them with damp soil I gave each one enough room to grow But I’m sure at least one will die The conservatory of the house he bought For me in Menerbes is beginning to warm again By summertime it will be full-green Like we were in his eye. Full of possibilities
When Cuny whispered to me in a tavern that the woman sitting next to Pablo was you, Dora Maar, I recognized you at once, beautiful oval face with a heavy jaw. Your penchant for saying nothing was much more than any dignity. You carried yourself like a sacrament. In contrast, there was nothing sculptured about him, his manner of moving, as he twisted and turned, bringing plump red cerisses to our table. Girls who look like that can't be painters he laughed. We were received later in a hothouse of plants and cages filled with doves. The plants were spiky and green and it’s just occured to me now, despite all this talk again of him, I’d seen the plants already in a gallery, Dora, a month before in a portrait of you.
They are all Picassos, not one is Dora Maar
Those plants belong to you As much as to me Did you think you were the first Woman of green? You might Look longer at my face I have green eyes too, Françoise Sacraments are ceremonies To be performed again and again Women are machines for suffering Circuits of grief and pain Perennial in our miseries Through us man will sound The depths of silence and of The fecund night. Or perhaps I’ve taken that line from somewhere else
Tête de femme
Dora, don’t we all take lines from another? Picasso himself said the great artists steal. I’ve written these words already in my memoir so in essence I’m plagiarising myself. In our ten years together, I was relieved when he captured me in lithography. Marie-Therese was the neoclassical muse while you were his cubic masterpiece. I couldn’t beat that. As he abandoned the rules to print his side of a story you could think he understood my personalities and moods but I tried to explain it was his work that held me, not the image of me that I saw in it. I became his constant tug-of-war, how I wanted him to see me— the way I was — and how he saw me in frustration and fantasy. When I visited him for the second time all those years ago, he showed me paintings of skinned rabbits, pigeons, a reflection of the war, the search for food. It was rumoured he was prolific because you made sure he didn’t starve. The art scene, outside France didn’t even know if he was still living while you were keeping him fed and warm. He showed me other paintings like papiers collés, or women wearing hats topped with forks. Then finally he showed me a group of portraits of you, tortured in his form of jagged war, the finest paintings he ever did, I believe.
A Seat at the Banquet
Food is more than just a sacrifice The offerings I made at Picasso’s feet The rabbits, pigeons, bowls of soup Bread broken by his hands were a guarantee Of his safety. You see Françoise I was more than his lover, at this time I was in some ways his mother too I kept him warm at my breast Used everything I had to keep him safe When you consider that this has been forgotten Look at your children and consider What you would do for them What thanks you might expect What torture you feel watching them In any kind of distress. I cried for him And he cried for me too. But the composition Of a child’s tears and its mother’s Are not the same. I salted his meals with mine Knelt down at his feet when in danger What exactly I gave is unclear He painted me into a corner one day The next I filled the canvass We swelled and shrank together My crusts were his. Eucharistic love