I Have Lived My Whole Life in a Painting Called Paradise

Diane Seuss

with the milkweeds splitting at the seams emancipating their seeds
that were once packed in their pods like the wings and hollow bones
of a damp bird held too tightly in a green hand. And the giant jade
moths stuck to the screen door as if glued there. And the gold fields
and stone silos and the fugitive cows known for escaping their borders.

I have lived in a painting called Paradise, and even the bad parts
were beautiful. There are fields of needles arranged into flowers,
their sharp ends meeting at the center, and from a distance the fields
full of needle flowers look blue from their silver reflecting the sky,
or white lilies if the day is overcast, and there in the distance is a meadow

filled with the fluttering skirts of opium poppies. On the hillside
is Moon Cemetery, where the tombstones are hobnailed or prismed
like cut-glass bowls, and some are shaped so precisely like the trunks of trees
that birds build their nests in the crooks of their granite limbs, and some
of the graves are shaped like child-sized tables with stone tablecloths

and tea cups, yes, I have lived in a painting called Paradise.
The hollyhocks loom like grandfathers with red pocket watches,
and off in the distance the water is ink and the ships are white paper
with scribblings of poems and musical notations on their sides.
There are rabbits: mink-colored ones and rabbits that are mystics

humped like haystacks, and at Moon Cemetery it’s an everyday event
to see the dead rise from their graves, as glittering as they were in life,
to once more pick up the plow or the pen or the axe or the spoon
or the brush or the bowl, for it is a cemetery named after a moon
and moons never stay put. There are bees in the air flying off

to build honeycombs with pollen heavy on their back legs,
and in the air, birds of every ilk, the gray kind that feed from the ground,
and the ones that scream to announce themselves, and the ravens
who feed on the rabbits until their black feathers are edged
in gold, and in the air also are little gods and devils trying out their wings,

some flying, some failing and making a little cream-colored blip
in the sea, yes, all of my life I have lived in a painting called Paradise
with its frame of black varnish and gold leaf, and I am told some girls
slide their fingers over the frame and feel the air outside of it,
and some even climb over the edge and plummet into whatever

is beyond it. Some say it is hell, and some say just another, bolder
paradise, and some say a dark wilderness, and some say just an unswept
museum or library floor, and some say a long-lost love waits there
wearing bloody riding clothes, returned from war, and some say
freedom, which is a word that tastes strange, like a green plum.

More by Diane Seuss

Toad


The grief, when I finally contacted it 
decades later, was black, tarry, hot,
like the yarrow-edged side roads 
we walked barefoot in the summer. 

Sometimes we’d come upon a toad 
flattened by a car tire, pressed into 
the softened pitch, its arms spread out 
a little like Jesus, and it was now 

part of the surface of the road, part 
of the road’s story. Then there was 
the live toad I discovered under 
the poison leaves of the rhubarb,

hiding there among the ruby stems,
and if you ate those stems raw, 
enough of them, you’d shit yourself
for days. It isn’t easy to catch a living 

thing and hold it until it pees on you
in fear. Its skin was the dull brown 
of my father’s clothes, my grandfather’s 
clothes as he stood behind the barber’s 

chair, clipping sideburns, laying a warm 
heap of shaving cream over a bristly chin, 
sharpening his straight razor and swiping it 
over the foam-covered cheek of my father, 

who often shaved twice a day, his beard 
was so obstinate, even in the hospital bed. 
When I laid a last kiss on his young cheek, 
the scraping hurt my lips. Do you ever 

wonder, in your heart of hearts, 
if God loves you, if the angels love you, 
scowling, holding their fiery swords, 
radiating green light? If your father 

loved you, if he had room to love you, 
given his poverty and suffering, or if 
a coldness had set in, a cold-bloodedness, 
like Keats at the end, wanting a transfusion 

of the reader’s life blood so he could live 
again. Either way, they’re all safely 
underground, their gentleness or ferocity, 
their numb love, and my father’s 

tar-colored hair, and the fibers of his good 
suit softened by wood tannins, 
and grandfather’s glass eye with its 
painted-on mud-colored iris, 

maybe all that’s left of him in that walnut 
box, and Keats and his soft brown clothes, 
and the poets before and after him.
But their four-toed emissary sits 

in my hand. I feel the quickening pulse 
through its underbelly. Hooded eyes, 
molasses-tinged, unexpressive, 
the seam of its mouth glued shut.

Song in My Heart

If there’s pee on the seat it’s my pee,
battery’s dead I killed it, canary at the bottom
of the cage I bury it, like God tromping the sky
in his undershirt carrying his brass spittoon,
raging and sobbing in his Hush Puppy house
slippers with the backs broke down, no Mrs.
God to make him reasonable as he gets out
the straight razor to slice the hair off his face,
using the Black Sea as a mirror when everyone
knows the Black Sea is a terrible mirror,
like God is a terrible simile for me but like
God with his mirror, I use it.

Self-Portrait with Sylvia Plath’s Braid

Some women make a pilgrimage to visit it
in the Indiana library charged to keep it safe.

I didn’t drive to it; I dreamed it, the thick braid
roped over my hands, heavier than lead.

My own hair was long for years.
Then I became obsessed with chopping it off,

and I did, clear up to my ears. If hair is beauty
then I am no longer beautiful.

Sylvia was beautiful, wasn’t she?
And like all of us, didn’t she wield her beauty

like a weapon? And then she married,
and laid it down, and when she was betrayed

and took it up again it was a word-weapon,
a poem-sword. In the dream I fasten

her braid to my own hair, at my nape.
I walk outside with it, through the world

of men, swinging it behind me like a tail.