The first one was the Botticelli girl—
pre-Raphaelite, a Venus Lite whose ropes
of golden hair drew sparrows from the rooftops
when she glided down East Second Street;
and he—black leather cap, black coat, black beard,
small body twisted like a question mark—
appeared to stumble in her wake, appended
and dependent, yet somehow in charge.
And soon we saw her in the canvases
that lined his loft, and filled a gallery:
she rose up from a taxicab in one,
a Hudson River clamshell in another;
a hand half-hid her naked, perfect breasts.
The paintings were unframed: no glitz, no gilt;
just stretchers, staples, gesso and acrylic—
and her—the light brown eyes, that realm of hair.
His work sold quickly, then she disappeared
from studios, from Second Street, from life.
She left no baggage; no one knew her name.
Word got around from time to time that he
was spotted uptown somewhere, maybe Chelsea,
with a darker, yet familiar face.
He reappeared, in time, beside a darker
yet familiar face, whose oval shape—
head cocked, brows plucked and arched above pursed lips—
was perched and angled on a neck so long
its very length became irrational.
We climbed four flights to reach his sublet loft
and poked around while she looked past our stares;
at ease and naked as she posed for him.
Modigliani Ronnie we anointed her,
we inbred elders of the neighborhood;
and watched, and shook our heads as, once again,
a stream of portraits of his newest love—
thin waist, broad hips, suggestive tufts of hair
beneath her outstretched and columnar arms;
or clothed and in a chair—engulfed our side-street
framing shops and filled the Avenues.
And when this batch was sold, then Ronnie too
had had her moment, had her flash of life,
and was not seen again. A thick Botero
girl with massive thighs moved in next year;
a Renoir, then a Balthus, then some more.
The gossip had it that his beard turned gray.
His beard turned gray, then white, the story went.
Now he found his models on the street
and focused on an inch or two of skin.
He wore thick glasses as he stabbed on paint
throughout the progress of an afternoon,
and moved in closer, squinting through a lens;
the model, dozing, sprawled across a chair,
reduced to pixilated dots and dabs
as he enlarged each pore, each untweezed hair
that curled and wandered near an areole,
until the canvas spread to fill the room.
Until he was consumed in its enormity,
until their presence drained the room of air,
the folds and crush of belly, breast and flank
embracing, crushing and devouring him.
Or so the theory went when he had vanished,
when nothing could be found within the loft
except the paintings, stretched from wall to wall
and to the ceiling, of flesh and flesh and flesh,
so magnified and moist it seemed to breathe;
and stacks of massive rolls of canvases
that, unrolled, hinted of his tortured frame.
He had evaporated, evanesced,
the tortured frame a memory at best.
The painter and his many works and models
melted from the art scene and the Village.
But, yes, the waitress in this coffee shop
does have a Gaugin kind of look and style,
and the couple that just walked in holding hands,
and trade small kisses as they take a table,
bring Ronnie and the Botticelli girl
to mind. And is it just the low-cut dress
that makes that blonde barrista Rubenesque?
You see them drifting through the narrow streets
and in the markets and the laundromats,
these curiously familiar, striking women.
Some claim that if you try an angled glance
you may, at times, catch just the flicker
of a leather cap, a coat, a beard,
a body twisted like a question mark.