Lay Figures

“In his youth… Delacroix had many sessions with female models devoted to activities other than posing.”
—Marie Lathers, Bodies of Art: French Literary Realism and the Artist’s Model

I hadn’t thought about those little men
in years, the wooden models cased in glass
at the art supply store, though I’d linger by them

after school, studying their blank faces
and jointed limbs, wondering what they were for
and who would buy them. Surprising then to find

their forms again in Delacroix’s sketches,
to recognize in a master’s hand the long Os
of their faces and torsos. In one series,

two mannequins instead of men lean in
to the mouth of a cave in the briefest of outlines,
while robed Medea is a maze of angles

and her dagger seems to tremble. Why wouldn’t
the great artist rough out ideas by posing
figures who’d stay where they were put? Of course,

he might have drawn real men—what do I know
of artists’ habits? But at a recent auction
a mannequin d’atelier sold from his studio,

and I was delighted to think that I was right
about the way he worked. He sketched live models,
too, and bedded many, but always finished

from the imagination, “unconstrained”
by the living features of man or girl. The figure
in the auction catalog was spindlier

than the ones I once admired, its knobby elbows
and fingers more expressive, somehow, though its face
just as empty—the way the artist must

have thought of the real girls too, mute and posable,
interchangeable even, another set of tools.

Chelsea Rathburn

Chelsea Rathburn

Chelsea Rathburn’s third poetry collection, Still Life with Mother and Knife, is forthcoming from LSU Press in early 2019. A native of Miami, Fla., she now lives in the mountains of North Georgia, where she directs the creative writing program at Young Harris College.
Chelsea Rathburn

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Author: Chelsea Rathburn

Chelsea Rathburn’s third poetry collection, Still Life with Mother and Knife, is forthcoming from LSU Press in early 2019. A native of Miami, Fla., she now lives in the mountains of North Georgia, where she directs the creative writing program at Young Harris College.