Pablo and Gertrude

David Southward
she is all ears
while pacing the studio

absorbing each word
a fellow diablo

shapes so defiantly
with eyes aglow

she finds his rhythms
bracingly apropos

amusing for being
plucked from the nouveau

and muscular womanhood
like fruit sur la table—

in such prisms
possibilities grow

toward a realization
of the great Silencio!

where they converge;
this is why she goes

for his theories of the nude
others have no patience;

only Gertrude
appears to understand

yearning to be skewed
and sex contorted

like a dissonant étude
(if somewhat more

offensive to a prude)
her queer poetry, too,

must be viewed
from all angles;

through such plenitude
the mind gathers

how little is understood
between two people

an artist’s misconstrued
because he sees

David Southward teaches in the Honors College at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His poems have appeared most recently in Measure, Light, The Other Journal, POEM, and Verse-Virtual. In 2017 he was awarded the Lorine Niedecker Prize from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and the Muse Prize from the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. His first collection, Apocrypha, will be published by Wipf & Stock in 2019.

Before the Razor
A look inside the creative process of “Pablo and Gertrude”

The first time I stumbled upon a two-column poem that could be read both horizontally and vertically, my inner child said, “I want to try that!” But it took me a while to find a subject that suited this mind-bending form. Only while reading Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas did it occur to me: cubism (and by extension, modernism) was the perfect subject, due to its fusion of multiple perspectives in a single work of art. I thought Stein’s friendship with Picasso added further intrigue to the idea.

Here I am in 2014 (on the left) basking in the Parisian sunshine with my best friend and husband, Geoff. I was reading Stein’s Autobiography, my muse, during that trip.

Their ability to “read” each other’s verbal/pictorial self-expression in novels and portraits suggested a higher-order thinking, involving both cross-media and cross-gender communication. By this point I had a theme for my experiment.

Before I even thought about how to start, “She is all ears” popped into my head. I liked the contrast it established between Stein’s listening and Picasso’s seeing, an evolving theme of the poem. I also heard in the line an amusing allusion to Picasso’s distortions of the female figure. (Probably no one picks up on this double entendre, but it still makes me smile.)

The sounds of the artists’ names helped to structure the poem. Each couplet in the left column (about Gertrude) ends with a slant rhyme on “Pablo,” while each in the right column (about Pablo) ends with a rhyme on “Gertrude”—signifying the unique harmony of their relationship. The poem’s ending can also be read as continuing into its beginning. It was beastly hard to preserve a modicum of sense in so many directions at once, but I regarded it as a labor of love. I tried to live up to the modernists’ formal ingenuity and thoroughgoing investigations of identity and intimacy. If this knotted lyric reminds you of modern art you’ve loved or hated—or of the friend who most challenges and inspires you—then my efforts have paid off.