Sunday, July 17, 2005

Remember Toulouse-Lautrec

One year before I moved to Houston, I dreamed:

I'm a cabaret singer in an LA soup kitchen. The food line is full of preppy boys dressed in plaid bermudas and college sweatshirts. I'm standing at the grand piano in the corner, dressed in a purple lamé gown, singing "New York, New York." The piano player is an older man, balding, with a beard. Suddenly, one of the boys breaks out of line and accosts me. He throws me to the floor and begins assaulting me. The piano player jumps up from his bench, storms over to us, and yanks the boy off of me. He says to the boy, whom he's got by the collar, "Do not touch her. YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TOUCH HER. She is sacred." Then the piano player looks at me and says, "Remember Toulouse-Lautrec." Then he looks up and announces to the soup kitchen patrons, "Remember Toulouse-Lautrec!"

I woke up with "Remember Toulouse-Lautrec!" resounding in my mind, although I didn't know how to pronounce his name properly at that point. It sounded in my head like "To-Louise Lautrec." Likewise, I can't say I knew conscioulsy who he was at the time. I had to ask the cafe manager when I got to work that morning, "Who is To-Louise Lautrec?"

"You mean Too-Loose La Trek," she said. "French Painter."

"Oh. Huh." Why was I supposed to remember him?

Later that Fall, I moved to San Francisco, one day after the 1989 earthquake. My housemates-to-be were still stuck in their old house in Santa Cruz, where the main street had caved into the ground.

I pulled up to the curb in SF's Richmond district and went searching for a phone to call and find out when my housemates would arrive with the keys. The Richmond showed signs of damage -- sidewalk corners buckled up like giant termite mounds, yellow caution tape draped across doorways -- though it wasn't devastated like the Marina District, where whole city blocks had collapsed.

The truth is, the quake shook me up quite a bit, even though I had missed it by a matter of hours (I've told stories of how I was in the shower at the time of the quake; they were fictions, I have to admit now) The ruin cast a palpable vulnerability over the city, and the pall heightened my senses, set me on alert for signs.

I found a cafe around the corner on 35th and Balboa, and went in to use the pay phone. "We'll be there this evening," my roommate-to-be said.

I hung up and went to use the bathroom. Sitting in the closet-cum-watercloset, I worried that I'd gotten myself into a mess. I had no plans except vauge ones "to become a writer." I had no job. I had no family there. I had a place to live and a car, but I had no idea how I would support myself. I'd moved to San Francisco after flipping a coin to decide between there or Seattle. SF won.

Through my worry, another feeling started to emerge: this strange sensation of familiarity and at-homeness that I couldn't quite place. My breast expanded with that feeling one sometimes has that "everything, EVERYTHING, is O.K." Gradually, I focused on the wallpaper. When I recognized it, I started: Toulouse-Lautrec's lithographs of the Moulin Rouge surrounded me as I sat on the pot. "Remember Toulouse-Lautrec," I heard the piano player say. An omen, I thought. A good one.

It was Tolouse-Lautrec that guided me to Houston,TX.

By spring of 1990, I was sick of San Francisco. I had a great job at the Exploratorium Museum, a trove of artistic and thrilling friends who dined and danced together almost every night, an obsessive crush on a robotics artist who actually had a crush on me, too. Life was sweet. Life was fun. Nonetheless, I was depressed.

Fatefully, I applied to graduate schools in Creative Writing. My main criterion for choosing a school was money: whoever gave me the most money, that's where I was going. I had an offer from New York University, which came with 16 points of tuition (whatever that means), a one-semester teaching assistantship (for $1500!?) and personal phone calls full of praise for my work from Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell. I was rejected by Iowa. Montana and Arizona accepted me, but I didn't want to live in those places. Then Ed Hirsch from the University of Houston called and offered me fellowship on top of fellowship and three guaranteed years of teaching undergraduate comp and lit classes (that once actually sounded like a good thing). I didn't know who Ed Hirsch was at the time, but I knew that I could live richly in Houston on what they were offering me. Ed Hirsch invited me to Houston so that I could check it out before making my decision. They flew me here in April, during Azalea Trail Week. Cheaters!

One of the best advertisements for Houston was the lineless face of the 45 year old hostess on Wroxton Street with whom I stayed. "It's the humidity, honey," she drawled when I looked stunned by how old she said she was. My last afternoon in Houston, I still hadn't made a decision. Mr. Hirsch asked me if it were likely I'd accept their invitation. Not knowing how to make such a decision, and lacking a coin, I went to my hostess's library and randomly pulled a book out of her bookshelf: the 20th anniversary edition of Antaeus Magazine, a now defunct literary journal.

Using the lit mag as one might a Bible, I closed my eyes and flipped open the book to a page, any page, stuck my finger to the page and thought, "This page will help me make my decision." When I opened my eyes, and this is the honest to goodness truth, I saw my finger pointing to a poem by Richard Howard, who taught in the U of H program at the time. "If this isn't a sign, then I don't know what is," I thought. But just in case I had doubt, here is the kicker: Howard's poem was titled, "An Homage to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec," and the poem mentioned in it a dream.

Who knows what might have happened had I gone to New York, New York? If my dream was any indication, it might not have gone well for me in the Big Apple.

I'm not sure if I should love or hate Toulouse-Lautrec for leading me here. I feel a bit of both, really: love/hate.
I am stunned at the beauty of my daughter, and I wouldn't have had her without my husband, and I wouldn't have met him without Houston.

Right before I graduated, I wrote a poem for Toulouse-Lautric that I liked. I included it in my manuscript. Ed Hirsch, who was somewhat of a mentor to me during my graduate years, praised it during my thesis defense as the best poem in my collection.

I don't necessarily agree with him, but it was a poem that came out whole, as if I already knew by heart and was simply catching the words on paper.

I like to believe that life can be like this, too; what we have in our hearts -- our dreams -- can be captured and realized with minimal effort. That maybe by letting our lives live us, we get out of our own way and live more gracefully, more magically.

* * * * * * * * *

Lautrec
By Christa Forster

A fluid day, a noon shut down, you loved the shade
in everything. Boulevard queens, Jane, the wash, the nude
back of the laundress. What was it you said? They give
good heart. This was, it seemed, enough for you.

At your best you lived against the lie of the completed
thing. You cultivated vanity, said I’d love to see a woman
have a lover uglier than me. October came,
the Moulin Rouge hung on every Paris wall. Critics raved:

Regarde! the senile pigs, how they sit at tables in
the company of little whores who lick their faces, make them
hot… there will never be another painter shameless as
Lautrec.
You could care less, you cared for love—

Suzanne (Maurice Utrillo’s mother, who also posed for Jean
Renior and then became a painter, too), the dancer Jane
Avril, whose nighttime solitary walk you froze on cardboard
with oil and gouache. Her hair swept up you dreamed

unpinned, cascading down her spine. Time and time again
you left your heart behind in darkened rooms, then panting
slid into the street and trudged the hard walk home. Within
the smallest pencil stroke you spoke about how hard it was

to be alone. You said you’d always been a pencil, though
you knew the nature of the brush. "In Bed: The Kiss," "The Two
Girlfriends" reveal this knowing tenderness. But love eluded
you. You sacrificed your heart for Art and reinvented hues

of blue. You were a prophet of desire in a cruel milieu. It
seems you understood that living itself within this world
was the hardest thing the strong of soul could do. When you
looked in the mirror, did you see yourself? Or was it

the reflection of a stranger caught between the teeth
of a quiet nightmare, so quiet it belied the possibility—
that you might be just a man with stunted legs, black beard,
heavy cheeks, with nothing much to say? 1897 came

and Death began to sew his stones into the lining of your
overcoats. The more you reached your hand toward life,
the more life slipped away. Friends witnessed how your drank
your cane. And after Villenueve-Sur-Yonne, men barred you

from the world you loved: the syphilitic prostitutes, your
alcoholic enemy, your mother living in Albi, your father’s
work on falconry. You begged, Papa you have the chance
to act in humane ways. You know how something locked up dies.


But there he let you stay. Inside the mental hospital, you asked
for stones and chalk, watercolors, paintbrushes, a little
light; then you painted several circus scenes to prove you were
alright: swarms of dilettantes swarming into canvas tents

craning necks to see the spectacle of horses heaving flesh,
the rider’s thighs snug against the horse’s silken flanks,
supple in their skill and pride as they ride around
the outside of the ring. And this painting matters, too:

A girl flush on a horse’s back, the horse connected to a man
by leather strap, the girl in green and leaning forward
but looking towards the man and smiling, perhaps in love,
while in the background an awkward clown appears about to fall

out of the frame.

1994

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