Egon Schiele’s Cell
Die eine Orange war das einzige Licht, Neulengbach, April 19, 1912
A blanket rucked with troubled sleep, the splayed shell of it cupping a fiery pearl: the gift of a single orange which he claimed
was the only light—though sometimes I want to imagine his lover Wally’s spread thighs or the rugged hull of her body on blue-black waves
bearing the treasured cargo from a tropic grove— the scent so focused in my mind it overwhelms the chamber pot, a bucket rendered in four deft arcs,
squating almost unnoticed beside the pallor of the bolted door. His folded jacket, a wash of earth-hard browns, his only pillow. He dreamt.
He writhed. The orange blazed within the lime-washed walls where he spent weeks at the mattress’ edge as on a precipice
with charges pending. When did that light finally gloom with mold or self-pity’s hunger sink its nails till the soft flesh bled?
The judge released him to the future irony of a conscripted life and early death from Spanish influenza. Now he is nowhere,
yet everywhere encrypted in that empty cell— my embering beacon for nights I lie awake and find myself nestled on that bed.
Off-season, before any tour bus would arrive, the desert seemed a theater all my own, its house lights dimmed. I waited
on a bench with the Southern Cross and Coalsack overhead. Around me, spinifex bristled beneath the wind. I could tell you
Aboriginal lore about that great rock, how a serpent dreams of an everywhen atop the dome, but in real time, on the stage
of this poem, the sun as expected lit its flare; molten ferric reds descended to the desert floor. I sat in awe, a speck on the brightening plain
and thought I’d gotten all I’d come for, until I spotted a dot beelining toward me out of that vastness—a mere sparrow, no threat, coal-black above,
snowy below, it settled on the tip of my shoe, then cocked its head and flashed a white eyebrow, questioning, questioning. When its tail began to joggle
side to side arrhythmically, I bobbed my foot. It would not go. A half hour I pondered that flicking semaphore, its flares and twitches, and registered
nothing but a tourist’s amusement. A local elder when I told him said, “Tjintir-tjintirpa, Willie wagtail. He brought you a message
from the otherworld.” I sobbed right there. Why am I writing this, twenty years on? Oh, envoy of bewilderment, what is it you have to say?
She was adrift in that city she’d left three decades before, the phoenix still ashen amid rubble and fire-black walls, so much forgotten or gone, even St. Nicholas Church, where she almost cried, seeing it reduced to a skeletal tower.
Her boy was six and amazed. One aunt lived in a bunker; another in a Quonset hut with a coal-fed stove. The alien child became his mother’s guide to each sibling’s home, a quick study with the map of the U-bahn’s tentacled lines.
She’d given him a leather purse with marks and pfennigs to pay their fares down and up into Hamburg’s dieseled air. Atop every stairway, kiosks flared with flowers in tiers higher than his head. He was willful, and nuzzled the scents,
then haggled bouquets—always snapdragons, scarlet ones— too cute for the ladies to say he offered not enough when he unzipped his purse. Those Löwenmauler roared all that summer for the aunts and uncles and adorned
the hotel suite where the mother indulged her boy with coloring books, wind-up cars, a harmonica she’d beg him not to play while she soaked in the tub to sponge away the city’s grime. She’d tell him to fine-tune
instead the Blaupunkt’s glowing moon-green dial enshrined among the vases, until she’d catch him watching, then shield her nipples as best she could, each of them, mother and son, red as those fierce-lipped blooms, suddenly stunned with the taste of prey.
Richard Foerster’s eighth collection, Boy on a Doorstep: New and Selected Poems (Tiger Bark Press, 2019), received the 2020 Poetry by the Sea Book Award. Other honors include Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize, a Maine Arts Commission Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, and two National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowships. He lives in a former Nazarene church in Eliot, Maine.