Médée Furieuse, 1838

Furious Medea, Delacroix called her,
but I can see no rage, unless we count
her breasts, twin weapons pointing fiercely
at us, or the hand clenching a dagger,
its shadow slicing her nearest child’s leg.
There is disorder in her hair and robes,
but her face, caught in profile, reveals what we
might read as sadness, a jaw too soft for anger.
The painting’s tension lies in the lack of fury,
in the illusion that she might be guarding
the boys, in our knowledge that she is not.
And the children in her arms—they know it, too.
The one half-hugged, half-throttled squirms away.
The other is folded in a pose so close
to the surrender of nursing he seems at peace
almost, but for his eye, open wide—
and looking directly at us.
                                              How many times
have I seen that look, the flash of fear
on my young daughter’s face when I have raged
at her or some small thing? It passes, the fury
and the terror—my daughter puts on socks;
the driver yields—but I’m left shaken, a stranger.
Maybe all mothers murder their children’s
innocence. In the painting, Medea holds
her boys so close they’re one body again,
two cords she must cut. The children have no choice
but to love the hand that holds the knife.

From Still Life with Mother and Knife (Louisiana State University Press, 2019) by Chelsea Rathburn. Copyright © 2019 by Chelsea Rathburn. Used with the permission of the author.