Mary Cassatt – The Letter (1890-91)
aquatint and drypoint print made from three plates
[i know that look—like something about to break, to be broken. her tongue tests the seal like a question. what she’s written is hidden but the moment is rarer. between from and to flies a little prayer. as a child i wrote a letter to god. tucked in with spit, my skepticism. i placed it on top of the cornice over my window, then lay in bed and etched the drapes’ cornflowers into my retina. no sleeping once you’ve sent a letter like that. much later i fell in love with a man just by writing him letters. a mathematical act of self-convincing: three dimensions folded down to one. two years ago, i wrote a four-page letter to my mother explaining that i was bisexual. i sealed it, addressed it, stamped it, and laid it in my desk drawer. then i called instead, and she said she’d had a feeling. that was the end of it. no biggie. never any biggies in my family—but in letters i’ve written dear god, girls are crazy, i was born to be alone, i want to die, i lied when i said i was happy. maybe each letter was really for me. at the back of the blue desk, Cassatt’s writer watches her life on a little stage, the best and worst show she’s ever seen. her letter wants its envelope disastrously. fused to her beautiful house, she feels the walls lean in with the paper’s crease, and she takes the time to feel it fully.]
Jay DeFeo – The Rose (1958-66)
oil with wood and mica on canvas
[some ideas are monumental. this one had to be lifted from the artist’s apartment with a crane before she finished. one-ton mound of paint on canvas swinging over Manhattan. an idea that had a center to it, a sun. it’s a Bernini godburst in neutrals. attention is the truest form of worship: for eight years she grew it from a bed of fleshy latex, roseskin shavings pruned with a palette knife. to keep the idea quiet, she fed it: a hair barrette, cigarettes and wires, epoxy, canned beans. what’s heavier than knowing your worth? after a fight, my grandmother would apologize by explaining: you can say whatever you want at my age. a painter, she picked us up from school in Jackie O. sunglasses and fur. no less than three grandchildren are named after her. after eviction, The Rose swelled to two tons while DeFeo minced herself into mica. to obsess is to forget you are alive. she couldn’t stop revising: petal follows petal follows petal. the center shines like nothing can—the pit one carves herself from. my grandmother’s mother hid her children in the cupboards when her husband came home drunk. before it was The Rose it was Death Rose, and before that it was The White Rose. it lived behind a false wall at an art institute, listening to conference calls, gathering mass. it ate the plaster that encased it. space junk spiraling into a dark throat. before my grandmother was Rose Mary, she was Rose Marie, and before that she was Mary Rose, a girl stuck inside a mirror—or a painting. she prefers knives to brushes. we’ve never called her happy. but The Rose hangs in its own lit alcove at the Whitney now. RMB, my grandmother still signs her work. she always knew her magnitude. she’ll have you know it too.]
ROCHELLE HURT is a poet and essayist. She is the author of three poetry collections: The J Girls: A Reality Show (Indiana University Press, 2022), which won the Blue Light Books Prize from Indiana Review; In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016), which won the Barrow Street Poetry Prize; and The Rusted City: A Novel in Poems (White Pine, 2014). Her work has been included in Poetry magazine and the Best New Poets anthology. She lives in Orlando and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.