Edith Sitwell on Style
She had on wonderful clothes, as usual.
--Constance Sitwell (cousin)
A little blonde is the hardest thing in the world to dress
though pastels bring up her skin like certain glazes
and she's at her best in hats awash in cherries,
flowers, and the silly mornings of the past,
into which she pitters like an albino mouse and waits
for the modish to take the cue, all cloche and decolletage.
Why do some women insist that sartorial choice
must be between distraction and sublime cliche?
Dress like a backlit dwarf by Velazquez if you're short,
or in stiff folds a la Titian if ecclesiastically tall.
Your worst feature is always your character,
which will only be fashionable when you're gone.
It's been peering between balustrades for years now--
it might just as well get dressed, come down.
Edith Sitwell and the Carnal World
In later life she made a lot of what she
christened her "Bastille."
--The Sitwells: A Family's Biography
Think what an Equipage thou hast in air ...
--"The Rape of the Lock"
Viewer, it's night. I'm locked into a straightening device.
So remove my flesh like an overly bulky gown
and trace my spine's delicious curve, my nose's
(one nostril's been closed by a metal flap) small bend,
and the place where you can plump up like a heart
behind twinned bars. I can still breathe one-sided poetry so will--
that the night, though long, retains a certain nasty gleam
can be seen in its spirits: fat bluebottle flies which have descended
(it's summer in Staffordshire), are drawn to the usual small,
dead thing, and are far more beautiful, in their blue carapaces,
than they deserve. But lost and stupid too.
What can they learn to love that's here?
You've already picked me clean, bright thing--
you know the answer, beat doubled fists, and can't refuse.
That year I got "The Rape of the Lock" by heart
instead of "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck"
(not that poem's right name). I learned "The Rape of the Lock"
not only because my parents deemed it so improper
but because coiled in the metonymic was my hope
that if new worlds could be sprung from a single lock
small me might be fanned to larger, warmer you.
Besides, I loved the billet-doux, coiffure posed
as subject, and that canny lovers may manage
to couple handily within each couplet
without quite touching. A lack turned luck indeed.
As if a girl with a book stands in for boys on decks
while something both licks the stalled-out amidships higher
and also retrieves the broom that beats it back.
When I complained about decanting flies, someone placed
a matchbox in my palm. Was I supposed to trap the things?
(My wrists were pinned away from my gowned sides, remember.)
You puzzle on while I describe the label:
a stencilled blue ship, anchored, and an equally blue canal
curling between smokestacks like a cleansing path.
Letters in red: "Ship," "Canal," and "Match,"
as if these make perfect sense together. But the new world's flat,
the ship's been hitched to the opposite side from that on which
the blue canal--along which nothing moves all day--must wend.
And the matches (shake the box) are also absent.
Is it that what strikes, on clever surfaces, also sticks?
My brain's alight! How sly of Nurse to kill the time
like this, and of you, dear Viewer, to swat along!
The Sitwell Family, 1900
--John Singer Sargent
Switch the light source and it's day and portside, London.
I'm holding an "I'm a Little Teapot" pose
though, red-garbed and hipslung, I resemble most
a fledgeling pirate or a flamenco dancer minus
bosoms, swords, or music. When the crew arrives
and is jumbled in with pets, best furniture and toys,
something's left behind--perhaps a table beautifully painted
(then painted out) on which a box had been locked
with our voices in it. Though all speaks on in art,
of course, despite the dramatic mismatched clothes,
tidal drift among the watch, the way a craft becomes
filled with us while hardly ours, and even Father,
who tries to lower the boom each day by dropping
one arm along my shoulder's red horizon.
Since everything needs an engine, my brother offers
Chesham Place's electric fan, the first we'd seen.
We'd return from sitting, rush to fiddle it
from slow buzz to blur and forget, almost,
its usual look of stunned, five-petalled flower,
sideways paddlewheel schematic, or the mouth
of a woman poised to sing ("Heliocopter,"
Osbert would whisper later from the whirlwind--1942).
Since I knew what hoists a windless sail,
sets grief to cool, expects to grow more lovely still,
I enjoyed the creaky twirl of skirts.
Why should passion ignore the strictly mechanical?
Let each, by egging on the other, abjure the claim
of Mother's agues, chilblains and lumbagos!
Sacheverell thinks my childhood was untrue--
that I invented slick Doctor Rack and Screw
and our awful parents. Locked into what he couldn't see.
I bent my nose and back to books and read
aloud so my brothers too could ride the rev,
the hum, the poetry that comes from facing
whatever happens in the smae direction.
Osbert was old enough, and of course the painter
already knew what it took to place a hand
over something so like another's ticking heart.
As he accumlated more years than two,
Sachie continued not to grieve. And yet
when we were asked who was the pretty baby in the painting,
mine was always the cadence he most believed.
Later, Virginia Woolf would say my hands
were lovely, and had folded into here "like fans."
She liked too, though that day was blowing a gale,
my red flouced dress, the details of which she pleated
into a letter to a well-loved, absent friend
who would, in turn, unfold it with the post--
a ritual both elegant and bloodless (Woolf could always pen
a gorgeous letter). But that season I preferred
a twilit expanse of lawn, words pocking the air
like peripatetic fireflies as childhood stories
waved their jars. Since her goal was another's jealousy.
we weren't destined, quite, to be real friends.
Still, I'd talk and wave my hands about,
stirring the silk-laced blades of her conceit.
Viewer, think above sea-and-eye level, outside and fixed.
Mother and Father. The stars, which have hardly shifted
for months. Certain coastlines from a ship.
Streetlights in rain. The gritty top of a wall you climbed once.
Think now of your clothing stippled with stars,
a cape of deep-piled velvet that's just your height.
How you hated someone for half your life
then turned sweet friends. Amends you didn't need to make.
And always, like a sprintime swarm or bonnet,
maracas you can't stop shaking, or five unfinished figures
in a painting, ideas you've torched or toched
in indecent places. Think anything at all then, Dear,
and more the spots at which the compass drifted.
Now think of the stars, which have hardly shifted.
Among TERRI WITEK'S publications are Fools and Crows (Orchises Press,
2003), Courting Couples (Winner of the 2000 Center for Book Arts Prize)
and Robert Lowell and Life Studies: Revising the Self (University of
Missouri Press, 1983). She teaches at Stetson University in DeLand,