En route, October 1910
I cannot now remember the first word
I learned to write — perhaps it was my name,
Ophelia, in tentative strokes, a banner
slanting across my tablet at school, or inside
the cover of some treasured book. Leaving
my home today, I feel even more the need
for some new words to mark this journey,
like the naming of a child — Queen, Lovely,
Hope — marking even the humblest beginnings
in the shanties. My own name was a chant
over the washboard, a song to guide me
into sleep. Once, my mother pushed me toward
a white man in our front room. Your father,
she whispered. He’s the one that named you, girl.
There is but little I recall of him — how
I feared his visits, though he would bring gifts:
apples, candy, a toothbrush and powder.
In exchange I must present fingernails
and ears, open my mouth to show the teeth.
Then I’d recite my lessons, my voice low.
I would stumble over a simple word, say
lay for lie, and he would stop me there. How
I wanted him to like me, think me smart,
a delicate colored girl — not the wild
pickaninny roaming the fields, barefoot.
I search now for his face among the men
I pass in the streets, fear the day a man
enters my room both customer and father.
There comes a quiet man now to my room —
Papá Bellocq, his camera on his back.
He wants nothing, he says, but to take me
as I would arrange myself, fully clothed —
a brooch at my throat, my white hat angled
just so — or not, the smooth map of my flesh
awash in afternoon light. In my room
everything’s a prop for his composition —
brass spittoon in the corner, the silver
mirror, brush and comb of my toilette.
I try to pose as I think he would like — shy
at first, then bolder. I’m not so foolish
that I don’t know this photograph we make
will bear the stamp of his name, not mine.
I wear my best gown for the picture —
white silk with seed pearls and ostrich feathers —
my hair in a loose chignon. Behind me,
Bellocq’s black scrim just covers the laundry —
tea towels, bleached and frayed, drying on the line.
I look away from his lens to appear
demure, to attract those guests not wanting
the lewd sights of Emma Johnson’s circus.
Countess writes my description for the book —
“Violet,” a fair-skinned beauty, recites
poetry and soliloquies; nightly
she performs her tableau vivant, becomes
a living statue, an object of art —
and I fade again into someone I’m not.
Here, I am to look casual, even
frowsy, though still queen of my boudoir.
A moment caught as if by accident —
pictures crooked on the walls, newspaper
sprawled on the dresser, a bit of pale silk
spilling from a drawer, and my slip pulled
below my white shoulders, décolleté,
black stockings, legs crossed easy as a man’s.
All of it contrived except for the way
the flowered walls dominate the backdrop
and close in on me as I pose, my hand
at rest on my knee, a single finger
raised, arching toward the camera — a gesture
before speech, before the first word comes out.
I pose nude for this photograph, awkward,
one arm folded behind my back, the other
limp at my side. Seated, I raise my chin,
my back so straight I imagine the bones
separating in my spine, my neck lengthening
like evening shadow. When I see this plate
I try to recall what I was thinking —
how not to be exposed, though naked, how
to wear skin like a garment, seamless.
Bellocq thinks I’m right for the camera, keeps
coming to my room. These plates are fragile,
he says, showing me how easy it is
to shatter this image of myself, how
a quick scratch carves a scar across my chest.
Bellocq talks to me about light, shows me
how to use shadow, how to fill the frame
with objects — their intricate positions.
I thrill to the magic of it — silver
crystals like constellations of stars
arranging on film. In the negative
the whole world reverses, my black dress turned
white, my skin blackened to pitch. Inside out,
I said, thinking of what I’ve tried to hide.
I follow him now, watch him take pictures.
I look at what he can see through his lens
and what he cannot — silverfish behind
the walls, the yellow tint of a faded bruise —
other things here, what the camera misses.
When Bellocq doesn’t like a photograph
he scratches across the plate. But I know
other ways to obscure a face — paint it
with rouge and powder, shades lighter than skin,
don a black velvet mask. I’ve learned to keep
my face behind the camera, my lens aimed
at a dream of my own making. What power
I find in this transforming what is real — a room
flushed with light, calculated disarray.
Today I tried to capture a redbird
perched on the tall hedge. As my shutter fell,
he lifted in light, a vivid blur above
the clutter just beyond the hedge — garbage,
rats licking the insides of broken eggs.
No sun, and the city’s a dull palette
of gray — weathered ships docked at the quay, rats
dozing in the hull, drizzle slicking dark stones
of the streets. Mornings such as these, I walk
among the weary, their eyes sunken
as if each body, diseased and dying,
would pull itself inside, back to the shining
center. In the cemetery, all the rest,
their resolute bones stacked against the pull
of the Gulf. Here, another world teems — flies
buzzing the meat-stand, cockroaches crisscrossing
the banquette, the curve and flex of larvae
in the cisterns, and mosquitoes skimming
flat water like skaters on a frozen pond.
On the crowded street I want to stop
time, hold it captive in my dark chamber —
a train’s sluggish pull out of the station,
passengers waving through open windows,
the dull faces of those left on the platform.
Once, I boarded a train; leaving my home,
I watched the red sky, the low sun glowing —
an ember I could blow into flame — night
falling and my past darkening behind me.
Now I wait for a departure, the whistle’s
shrill calling. The first time I tried this shot
I thought of my mother shrinking against
the horizon — so distracted, I looked into
a capped lens, saw only my own clear eye.