31 JANUARY 2012


I Was Not Magnificent
From The Vanishing of Camille Claudel

About E. Marie Bertram




Blow flower. Intruder? Saffron-petaled rosette atop
A furred stem, leaves frayed, serrated, lion’s teeth,
Descriptor, from the Latin, that lends the flower its name.
Open at dawn, at dusk they fold their petals like so many
Small arms,

                    The dark wings closing about them, gently,
In a gesture akin to mockery that is not mockery at all.
Go ahead now, blow—

                                        Long past the goldenhead
That boasts, equally, of whimsy & resolve, the ghost-tailed
Seeds release—tiny comets—into the wind, the mottled blue-
Black against which the wind dances—wild, dependable?—
To the sounds of its own gathering.

                                                         Given pleasure, given
Ruin, & memory—terrain we never quite tire of visiting—
Given, finally, all that is given—what would you have me do
With my hands & chin stained with the scent of longing?



I Was Not Magnificent

The contrast of dark on dark, want butted up against need, wind tousling the leaves—though not tender, as a hand to the upturned face—not quite. More like the draw of one body to another by way of the outstretched palm, the open fist. From the highway, the sound of it—the wind, the leaves—barely audible, our faces turned away from the sun, your hand resting quietly on my leg. Always the weight of the subjunctive mood. And, in the periphery, a band of errant, well-meaning cowboys ready to sip applejack & take up arms. The body falls, then breaks, every time—what it does best. And, every time, we teach it to get right back up again.


We sleep off what we can. In the morning, rust & a little good news, the gas tank full, hands aching beneath the weight of another beautiful day, each one not unmoved by the presence of the others. And the sun a giant, benevolent space heater. When you asked, from the passenger seat, what I wanted, what warm or shiny thing would bring me pleasure, suffuse me with joy, I said nothing. Instead, the wind moved up & down my body through the open window. Through the trees. An oriole dipped by with its neon underwing, & it’s then I realized the only way to describe your face is open. The truth? I’d wanted your hand between my legs, nestled & still like a sleeping animal. Like some silent, trusting thing. When I spoke, my words marbles. I spit them out for you as gracefully as possible.


If you kiss the back of your hand loudly, birds will come. Here, the field spotted with deer. Here is the bent way we meet each other: the photographs, the party hats, the traitor in her comfortable brown shoes. For now we are so young. Here is the center of me with a little red flag waving in the wind by a lake, a small lake, for everyone to drink from. And nobody is ever lonely. August pear, pocket knife, sweet grain rolled around the tongue. We watch the light change through the open window. Color the bed sheets by growing, quietly, simply, in the dark. We bend to the light between the trees. Wear desire like a garment. Holler our names into the wind.



from The Vanishing of Camille Claudel

Convinced Rodin was trying to steal my work, that he was spying on me, haunting me, that he was trying to steal me—I worked in seclusion in my atelier among sculptures, cats, the heavy stone the darkness brings.

I carved & carved.

I carved & polished & carved, hands rouge with the rough, wet work of the thing—iron driving, then making graceful—seducing—the stone.




At night, as a girl, I’d reach deep into the earth with both hands, haul red clay home in a wheelbarrow, ruddy up to the elbow.

I’d dig & dig until my knuckles were rusty hinges.

Shape creatures out of nothing.

Draw from formlessness a form.




And in my grandfather’s kiln—a wide, red mouth accustom to the mechanism of roof tiles—I burned my creatures, one by one.

Father delighted.

My brother Paul, three years my junior, followed me sometimes as far as Devil’s Mound, out past the woods that circumscribed the family home, where the rocks turned crag & the cave jaws unhinged the night.

I burned my creatures.

One by one, I burned them.

I gave them life.




What does it mean to be a ghost?




Some years later, when asked, in a friend’s guestbook, my favorite painters & composers, I scrawled Myself in the ledger, alongside my favorite food & drink: Love & fresh water.




In Paris, the École des Beaux-Arts refused to admit my friend Jessie Lipscomb & me on the grounds that we were women.

So we attended the cloistered Académie Colarossi.

Rented a studio of our own.

We would become the tradition of female artists against which we would measure ourselves.




But when I was working—when I was working, my hands a pair of agile cranes skimming the surface of a wide lake of stone—it was then the crowd hushed, & the curtain, slowly, was drawn to reveal something pure, something standing, elegant, & still, just for me.




Critics claimed I had no style of my own, that I was merely an annex—an appendage—to Rodin’s masterful sculptures.

And they were right.

I was, for much of the time, merely his appendage: an arm, his right arm—entirely necessary.




But even in the Musée Rodin, my work—myself—is kept, tamped down, beneath Rodin’s roof.

It’s only in the Musée d’Orsay—that old converted railway station where the big clock strikes the
hours even when the doors are locked, the visitors have returned to their lives, & the statues stand alone, together, in the dark—that my work, itself, stands free.




completed her MFA in poetry, along with a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a fellow.  The author of eight chapbooks, including The Vanishing of Camille Claudel (Seven Kitchens Press, forthcoming) and Inland Sea, which received the 2009 Robin Becker Chapbook Prize, she is currently a Fellowship Instructor in English at Augustana College.  She has lead creative writing workshops for homeless individuals in transition, a prisoner, and students at the elementary, high school, and college level.