In the group of poems on women’s work are three ekphrastic poems about the relationship between the male artist and the women workers he paints.
In “Degas’s Laundresses,” after describing the beauty and competence of these washerwomen, the poet breaks in to warn them not to turn round for the male artist to draw them. Degas’s vision of the women is described as “unbandaging his mind.” A good laundress would understand the twists, turns and blind designs of the artist’s mind, for the bandage is the women’s “winding sheet.” The laundresses have the power to clean, heal, the male artist’s wounded mind.
“Woman Posing” is based on “the painting Mrs Badham by Ingres.” I cannot find the painting, but found a drawing of the same woman by the artist. The poem begins by identifying her: “She is a housekeeping. A spring cleaning.” The frill and lace the artist dressed her in cannot hide “the solid column of her neck.” Ill-at-ease in a place and pose not hers, “[s]he smirks uneasily at what she’s shirking”: housework, and holds the open book “like pantry keys.” The male artist falsifies women’s appearance and work, but the work still shows in women’s appearance.
“On Renoir’s The Grape Pickers” seems to be about his “Grape Pickers at Lunch,” rather than another painting with the poem’s title. The poem begins ominously. In their roundness and fleshiness, the grape pickers “seem to be what they are harvesting.” With the exception of one “red-headed woman” who is sleeping instead of working. The figure of the female artist, she is dreaming of “stoves, raked leaves and plums.” She will pay, however, for her dreams, for “[w[hen she wakes summer will be over.” This poem is my favorite of the three. It poignantly and sharply observes the trade-off the woman-artist has to make between home and work, a trade-off not put to men in the same manner.