Ways to Paint a Woman

by Lois P. Jones
PenShells
First Place, September 2010
Judged by Ruth Ellen Kocher


A handful sleepcorn drifts from the mouth
stammered true out towards the snow conversations. –Paul Celan

Sometimes you cannot say
what is in the heart.

Sometimes you have to paint it yellow—
listen with the eyes: honeycomb and maize,

golden rainflowers.
Transform with your softest brush

the way Lorca’s bathing girl liquifies
into water–half a head in fire,

sun burning a trail from forehead to cheek.
Graze the mouth with mango. Make time to blend

and take away. Use the green of a blind man
when he says you’re beautiful

and means you’re timeless.
Show what the light gave her

washing warmth into a neck
until it’s dune, a cliffside

that holds a head of surf.
Paint as you would before you awaken,

when sunlight falls like milkweed
and you are an empty silo

letting her grain fill you–
buttery malt and biscuit

for the love of honey.


This poem is stunning in language, in image, in music, and in form. The title of the poem is immediately intriguing and a great risk in that the reader comes to the first line, already, with great expectation. The much over-used couplet finds a home here, creating a subtle dynamic which, paired with the sometimes other-worldly imagery, leaves the reader feeling, at the end of the poem, as if she has emerged from a spell. A sense of enchantment drives this poem quietly, with an elegance that could easily have degraded into the sentimental. To instruct is no small task. Here, the speaker directs us to "Graze the mouth with mango. Make time to blend/and take away," to "Show what the light gave her," "listen with the eyes," and in each instance, I reader must believe and trust the transformative moment to be genuine. I am caught up so much in the language that, at the close of the poem, I very much want to go back to the beginning and read it again, and I feel to achieve this sense of intrigue and immediate longing in the reader is perhaps the most most imperative task of the poet. --Ruth Ellen Kocher

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