The Chelsea Girl

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“The sketch of an afternoon”
wrote Whistler, which is still more time
than any gentleman would pay
to a costermonger girl—
unschooled, guttermouthed urchin
orbiting like a comet from the family
fruitbarrow, screaming up a sale—
bugle-voiced and fearless.

In the center of the Empire,
she lives on the edge of it,
accosting the fine-cloaked
Londoners, cheekiness gauged
to the length of the leash
of the law—constables she’ll dress
down in words as choice
as any rotten, heirloom
apple flung at its mark.

In Whistler’s portrait, she stands
feet apart, hands braced on hips,
a stout A, like Henry VIII
in Holbein’s portrait, except,
being small, she is looking up.
A yellow ‘kingsman’ round her neck
(the fruitseller’s trademark scarf)
a hand-me-down man’s floppy hat:

these frame what the painter spent
the best of his attention on:
her composed and rounded face—
her blood-pinked cheeks,
her closed lips, wide brown eyes,
and the beautiful lift—
What you think YOU’RE looking at?
of the eyebrows. Who knows

what Whistler paid her
for her time. He gave away
this painting to pay off
a private debt, and she remains
(according to the catalog
where I admire her greatly
diminished reproduction)
even now, in a private collection,
still standing like a king
of her own accord.