And then there was that idea I had about a woman who is with her baby after the first few entrancing weeks. The later weeks, when nobody’s around and her nipples are nearly tip-cut and she realizes her uterus may have descended. The idea is that an old woman comes to the door with a cake. This old woman signed up for a secret society 50 years ago after some old woman brought her a cake. And that woman (old now) received instructions (in 1964) to bake a new cake. And she has had to keep the cake in her freezer these long 50 years (it must have been protected during power outages, moves, periods of hunger), whereupon one day she will be called upon to deliver and serve the cake to a new mother, a woman with descending organs. If the woman dies before her cake is called upon (50 years), her estate is required to send it (quietly) to a brightly lit bakery in a very high rent neighborhood which receives a lot of speculation in the food media because it has the most decadent, the most salivating & utterly baroque display of cakes, but has not ever to anyone’s knowledge opened for business.
And what if we all had a second face—not a figure of speech, not a euphemism or metonymic device—but a real face, corporeal, the face of ourselves as a baby, living in parallel with us on the top of our heads (the crown, we call it). The face of our baby self is constantly with us, under our hats. Every now and again we tip our hats to something, or our hat falls off, or the weather is too nice for a hat, and we remove it and reveal, to the world of strangers, our face as it first was.
Some weeks ago I came upon my death. I had just descended the steps of the Frick after viewing the thin porcelain wafer sheets of the ceramicist Edmund de Waal. I was thinking about something he said, how vitrines are like held breath, when there in the shade a large sluice came down and cut from the top of my head right to above my eyeballs, cross-sectioning my frontal lobe. But wait, I said, who will care for my children? And there flashed my husband holding four clammy hands. But what about my unwritten book of sketches and encounters? And that is how this all began.
There is a luminous silver teapot now on view, but not permanent, never permanent, in the Morgan Library. Though silver, it is not made of any metal I know, and no tea leaves can be strained through it, no cozy can cover it, no weary stranger can it host for a long afternoon, no
tray can it rest on, because it does not work in the way we expect teapots to work: it is a silver teapot in a painting.
Oh, there are more famous sterling objects in paint, there is for instance Copley's open-chested Paul Revere with his chubby fingers fondling a most verisimilitudinous mirrored teapot, so proportional and rational-looking, so devoted to its material likeness that you are almost bored with its hereness, you almost want to walk away towards a painting of a shipwreck.
No, this teapot is flashing before us for a season, and can be seen briefly at the Morgan for free on Fridays, but it lives in some darkened archive of the Royal Academy, and is about the size of a firefly, on a canvas about the size of a sink, whose official subject is four bored-looking English people at tea in a Venetian drawing room, by John Singer Sargent, 1898, and the teapot is a flourish, it could almost be a little flame about to set the coffered ceiling afire, it rests impossibly on a table that should have tipped years ago, in the same spatial field as a woman's white dress (she is holding the suggestion of sugar tongs) and it has the strangest quality such that the farther away you are, to a point, the more a teapot it is, and as you approach, the less and less you understand, and when finally you are looking only at the little object, it ceases to be.
It looks like a few pigeon feathers, like a pigeon has just, poof, removed itself from scene midair, a void of flotsam, except in other moods you might spot a spout or a handle, but always something moving, something vanishing, or perhaps, appearing?
And I have to ask (because one never knows if the world speaks a language only to her): In every painting is there not some vessel to contain the spirit of the painter, which if we could but only rub it would release the maker into our shared moment? Is there not a corridor just out of view or a salt caddy or a silver teapot or light from an implied window or a little eternal dog, that tells us to go on living?
Anna McDonald is a poet living, for the time being, in the mountains of western North Carolina with her partner and young children.