The Bistro Styx, by Rita Dove

She was thinner, with a mannered gauntness
as she paused just inside the double
glass doors to survey the room, silvery cape
billowing dramatically behind her. What’s this,

I thought, lifting a hand until
she nodded and started across the parquet;
that’s when I saw she was dressed all in gray,
from a kittenish cashmere skirt and cowl

down to the graphite signature of her shoes.
“Sorry I’m late,” she panted, though
she wasn’t, sliding into the chair, her cape

tossed off in a shudder of brushed steel.
We kissed. Then I leaned back to peruse
my blighted child, this wary aristocratic mole.

“How’s business?” I asked, and hazarded
a motherly smile to keep from crying out:
Are you content to conduct your life
as a cliché and, what’s worse,

an anachronism, the brooding artist’s demimonde?
Near the rue Princesse they had opened
a gallery cum souvenir shop which featured
fuzzy off-color Monets next to his acrylics, no doubt,

plus beared African drums and the occasional miniature
gargoyle from Notre Dame the Great Artist had
carved at breakfast with a pocket knife.

“Tourists love us. The Parisians, of course”—
she blushed—“are amused, though not without
a certain admiration . . .”
The Chateaubriand

arrived on a bone-white plate, smug and absolute
in its fragrant crust, a black plug steaming
like the heart plucked from the chest of a worthy enemy;
one touch with her fork sent pink juices streaming.

“Admiration for what?” Wine, a bloody
Pinot Noir, brought color to her cheeks. “Why,
the aplomb with which we’ve managed
to support our Art”—meaning he’d convinced

her to pose nude for his appalling canvases,
faintly futuristic landscapes strewn
with carwrecks and bodies being chewed

by rabid cocker spaniels. “I’d like to come by
the studio,” I ventured, “and see the new stuff.”
“Yes, if you wish . . .” A delicate rebuff

before the warning: “He dresses all
in black now. Me, he drapes in blues and carmine—
and even though I think it’s kinda cute,
in company I tend toward more muted shades.”

She paused and had the grace
to drop her eyes. She did look ravishing,
spookily insubstantial, a lipstick ghost on tissue,
or as if one stood on a fifth-floor terrace

peering through a fringe of rain at Paris’
dreaming chimney pots, each sooty issue
wobbling skyward in an ecstatic oracular spiral.

“And he never thinks of food. I wish
I didn’t have to plead with him to eat. . . .” Fruit
and cheese appeared, arrayed on leaf-green dishes.

I stuck with café crème. “This Camembert’s
so ripe,” she joked, “it’s practically grown hair,”
mucking a golden glob complete with parsley sprig
onto a heel of bread. Nothing seemed to fill

her up: She swallowed, sliced into a pear,
speared each tear-shaped lavaliere
and popped the dripping mess into her pretty mouth.
Nowhere the bright tufted fields, weighted

vines and sun poured down out of the south.
“But are you happy?” Fearing, I whispered it
quickly. “What? You know, Mother”—

she bit into the starry rose of a fig—
“one really should try the fruit here.”
I’ve lost her, I thought, and called for the bill.

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Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Return to Vienna, by Rita Dove

Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn,
or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me….
The Heiligenstadt Testament

Three miles from my adopted city
lies a village where I came to peace.
The world there was a calm place,
even the great Danube no more
than a pale ribbon tossed onto the landscape
by a girl’s careless hand. Into this stillness

I had been ordered to recover.
The hills were gold with late summer;
my rooms were two, plus a small kitchen,
situated upstairs in the back of a cottage
at the end of the Herrengasse.
From my window I could see onto the courtyard
where a linden tree twined skyward —
leafy umbilicus canted toward light,
warped in the very act of yearning —
and I would feed on the sun as if that alone
would dismantle the silence around me.

At first I raged. Then music raged in me,
rising so swiftly I could not write quickly enough
to ease the roiling. I would stop
to light a lamp, and whatever I’d missed —
larks flying to nest, church bells, the shepherd’s
home-toward-evening song — rushed in, and I
would rage again.

I am by nature a conflagration;
I would rather leap
than sit and be looked at.
So when my proud city spread
her gypsy skirts, I reentered,
burning towards her greater, constant light.

Call me rough, ill-tempered, slovenly— I tell you,
every tenderness I have ever known
has been nothing
but thwarted violence, an ache
so permanent and deep, the lightest touch
awakens it. . . . It is impossible

to care enough. I have returned
with a second Symphony
and 15 Piano Variations
which I’ve named Prometheus,
after the rogue Titan, the half-a-god
who knew the worst sin is to take
what cannot be given back.

I smile and bow, and the world is loud.
And though I dare not lean in to shout
Can’t you see that I’m deaf? —
I also cannot stop listening.


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