Degas in Blind Old Age, Waiting for an Omnibus


How relationships change, how worthless one becomes,
how one is no longer as one used to be.
I am not the man to hide the truth from myself,
only from others: if they take that away
what will be left to me? Soon one will be a blind man:
where there are no longer fish one should not try to fish.

From old Master Ingres's own lips I heard tell
that if I insisted on being an artist, a good artist,
I must draw lines! and still more lines!
Thus did I cultivate my own particular bent.
Spending the whole of my life with open arms and open mouth
to assimilate and live on what was happening around me,
redoing the same subject ten times, a hundred times:
art is a recapitulating abridgment.

All very well to copy what one sees, but how much better
to draw only what remains in one's memory;
only then can one bring out the essential form
and upon it the arabesques of interplaying light and shade
which is all that matters—never dissolution—
no need to grow faint in the presence of Nature:
the air one puts in a picture is not the air one breathes outside.

Once I could take a latterday Susannah half out of her hip bath
with nary an air or affectation, utterly absorbed in herself,
or the most haggard laundress yawning and stretching
and make it a wonder to behold—as powerful as a Daumier—
what then if their gestures were banal or graceless?
from each twist and crouch and idle backscratching
I could seize the fleeting moment in all its instantaneity:
all women and horses are born to be dancers.

Am I to end up like this, after racking my brain like one possessed
by so many ways of seeing and doing? I can see it all still:
every pose and juxtaposition, each perfection of design.
If I could have another twenty years's time
I could produce things that would endure; as it is
of all my work perhaps some of the drawings will remain—
pray God they be saved from the hands of American collectors!

They say I risk being run over every time I cross a street
but I can make my own way around, no need for their company;
in future let the encroachers irritate me no more.
An artist must live alone, his private life remain his own:
loneliness is not so bad once you consider the alternatives.

And if one were to say that I have lost my reason?
Lack of it would not prevent me from drawing good lines;
one should only use reason at most as a means
of getting onto an omnibus. How much longer will it take?
Everything is long for a man who wants to pretend he can see.
Enfin—here comes one at last—let it take me away no matter where.


Originally published in The Duckabush Journal
(Sequim, WA: The Duckabush Press)
No. 6, Spring/Summer 1991

Copyright © 1991, 2004  by P. S. Ehrlich

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Degas in the Boulevard de Clichy, circa 1910: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris