I join them by the quiet sea at the world’s edge –
this painted lady, her like companion, me.
They are the carven sum of a biology
focused to a finite place,
    here by the sea
       at the edge of the world.

Wide-beamed ladies they are, their skirts
all billowing pink, and prettied up with zagged lines
from the whim of the great designer.
It is ridiculously sensual,
my hand sliding the curved flank
of a slobbery sea-muscle’s carapace.

* * *

In the history-forging hub of the world, in Paris 1870,
the drabs of the Women’s Battalion, brave beyond reason,
yield the Boulevard de Clichy inch by blood-slicked inch,
down to the Place Pigalle and their resolute deaths.
    They are slung with rags,
these fear-free harpies of the Paris mob.

They are emphatically not painted ladies.
But the Commune sinks in a sea of gore,
and the red spirit is wrung at last
from old and tangled Paris –
    and now the eroticised mind
can invent the painted lady.

A mere generation on, and here on the Boulevard,
naughty spanking new, the Moulin Rouge,
its porn-slabbed walls, its froth of skirt and frill,
surveys the bloody path of the Commune’s ragged maenads –
    and around the corner is the Chat Noir,
       and the Folies(tryst-for-lovers)-Bergère.

And here is La Chérette, La Belle Otero, the Tiller Girls,
‘The Glutton’ and her goat.
Lautrec lumps his sketcher in the shadows.
That crisp, cool voyeur’s eye looks out
from the face of Edgar Degas –
    or Zola, Wilde or Daudet.

This is the world of the painted lady,
her element in space and time.
She high-kicks, she fizzes, she flaunts –
her inner secret of thigh imperative.
But the secret is too lightly veiled.
    It is available, formidable,

comes wrapped in dresses of splendid gesture,
a skirl of spray and flounce and petticoat,
of parasol and dilly bag,
flamboyant bow and dancing hat,
    of quadrille, can-can, champagne, the sizzle
and the whirl of the moment.

Behind alluring walls,
in gaslight flicker and smudging paint,
dancers supplement a meagre wage,
gowns hoisted awry,
with quick and basic sex,
    and pox.

* * *

By the shore at the edge of the earth
two painted ladies of the southern seas
face modestly away,  dissembling counterweight
to the brazen faces of the Boulevard –
but perfectly named;
provenance of a dream

that leans to the planetary winds,
a yearning for the lost and the familiar.
They are decked in grenadine, perhaps, with trims
of silken lace, the pattern cross-stitched,
    the horizontal irregular, white spotted,
       while chevrons march the vertical,

configured as wave-in-sand-under-water.
Is this mere evolved memory of functions spent and gone,
bedded in the roil of living time
but sunk now to the whimsy of decoration,
    deadended in the genetic mix?
       Tell me.

Or tell me it has purpose. This tiger stripe.
This broken trail of dots. These pinks.
These rough-squared shoulder-slabs of chocolate.
Tell me why nothing repeats.
    Why here is a pattern
       without pattern.

* * *

What folly. To ask such of the world: what folly.
To dress such a confident living in metaphor
lifted from the planet’s far side: what folly.
This painted lady is her own glorious dance,
    her own rhythm and purpose,
       her own fathomless pattern.

She is contained and sufficient unto herself,
her rhymes of light, her flares,
subsidings, her puffs of colour, her scrolling lines.
These are known to the spinning,
    shunting, soft-stepping earth,
       and that is enough. Must be enough.

© Pete Hay

Peter Macrow,
Tasmanian Times Poetry Editor.
Tasmanian poets or those with a Tasmanian link are invited to send up to 5 poems which have not appeared previously in print or electronic media to:
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For the complete collection, click here: Poetry, Peter Macrow





On low-tide island shale
two painted ladies command my presence.
Demure as novices, they sit
as if placed there,
    side by side,
       for me to find.