The København Kitties
It’s not that a writer ever abandons difficulties, nor that one wants to, knowing the brutal beauties lie there, in wait. However, in finally pulling oneself away from such monumental figures as Olson & Still for the past few months, one’s pleased to breathe a somewhat lighter air. Look around in appreciation of just that lightness. Possibly fostering another journey without stepping out the door: in correspondence with someone in London, both of us complaining about rain, when offhandedly I mention mussels for breakfast. He says the best he had were at the Chelsea Square Diner, of all places, while I respond, “Best we ever had were at La Mediterranée, Paris, avec Champagne, + more Champagne for dessert.” Now, of course, what drew us to that particular restaurant in the center of the Odeon long ago, if 1991 is, was that Balthus liked to think of himself as the “King of the Cats,” & after a delectable lunch there, painted the Cat of the Mediterranean. Quickly, from a discussion of gastronomic tastes to tastes in art, whereupon his tastes, my Londoner*, cannot abide the prepubescent erotic teasing Balthus offers up, while for me that feminine mystique springs forth as natural.
It’s funny, some go so far as to call Balthus a pornographer, & just days before this conversation a postcard fell out of a book I was reading. No kidding: just went to retrieve it from the night table, where it’s been propped up next to the white cat & Our Lady of Lourdes: Rembrandt’s, Femme au Bain, dite Bethsabée. This great nude at the Louvre, this sole image alone defends against all possible indictments of Balthus. Tell my friend in London that my longtime mentor Guy Davenport loved his work enough to write an entire book on the artist, calling up Collette, Kafka, Meyer Schapiro, Goya, & even Gertrude Stein & Claude Lévi Strauss to make a case for validity. Found Guy’s book next to separate volumes by Sabine Rewald & Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, both titled simply Balthus; Jane Harrison’s Themis; Bette Talvaccia’s Taking Positions: On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture; Aldis Browne Fine Arts, NYC, 1981, Edvard Munch: Paradox of Woman; catalogue of exhibit, New South Wales, 1997, titled simply Body; Susan Minot’s Lust; Dany Laferrière’s Eroshima; (I once reviewed) Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights; Collette’s Collected Stories; Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory; Hal Foster’s Compulsive Beauty; Psychoanalysis of Sexual Life by Dr. Vitali Negri, 1949, dedicated to his wife; The Optical Unconscious by Rosalind Kraus; & The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality; etc. All located on the wall just above my wife’s home computer.
Now, even before relocating Guy’s A Balthus Notebook on this shelf way too long ignored, I reminisced to my friend about the scholar I met at the National Gallery of Art, a professor at both Johns Hopkins & the Universitá di Bologna, the oldest, continually operating university in the world (in existence for more than a thousand years). Anna Ottani Cavina told me she knew Balthus during his 16 years in Rome, pronouncing his name sweetly: “Balllttoooz…” Her parting gift to me over lunch on the 7th floor Gallery restaurant was a copy of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. One of her books is Geometries of Silence: Three Approaches to Neoclassical Art. So I think of my 14-year-old student, Wyatt Marks, playing with our cat in my first apartment, cat jumping at yanked-up fold in her skirt, unashamed. Here, this is what struck me hardest, however: rummaging through yet another book on the shelf I listed, Edward Snow’s A Study of Vermeer: what falls into my clutches, but an air mail envelope from Copenhagen, DK with letter inside from friend & poet, Robert Hellman, dated June 17, 1974. In it, he responds to a series of poems I wrote & sent him titled “from Travel Poems for Robert Hellman,” based on our Time together in Cape Ann, Boston, Cambridge, etc.:
“How lovely all the distractions in your poems, that day in Cambridge, from which you take away nothing to make something else, but leave it all there, still growing out of our deaths. How nice that you should remember Gusta Goodman’s daughter and my bald baby head squeezing out of the whale’s cunt.” & earlier, “Copenhagen has a charm, good vibes, even in the long dark winter, and now with the rising sun at 2:30 a.m. and setting around 9:45 p.m. and parks full of flowers, children, puppies, topless girls – oh how Durgin Park they are the København kitties, but turn and smile at the old man who feels so warm and just slightly itchy but not so it hurts.” Ten years later, according the NYT obituary, he passes away on a boat from Germany to Denmark. Wish there had been more correspondence. I wasn’t much of a letter writer back then, & let the relationship falter. Said more than once Hellman taught me a lot without my even knowing it. His letter ends asking about our cat, Justine, saying the cat we gave him, “Justine’s daughter, disappeared out of Rockport, where she’d been living with the Costellos, leaving her kitten who now has kittens.”
*Two nights after writing this, I reflected on another subject in this conversation, when asking David Anfam whether, while in Basel last month, he’d visited the painting shook Dostoevsky to the core to the extent that he gazed at Holbein’s, The Dead Christ, two days running? No, he’d seen it many times, & opted to take the tram to Fondation Beyeler to see the Bonnard exhibit, calling up an anecdote of Balthus arguing with Marguerite Duras at Villa Medici in Rome over the worth of the newly constructed Pompidou Center coupled (in my insomniac darkness) with walking out on a ramp of that museum’s architecture to watch sunset over Paris, whereupon, family in tow, we could not reenter the building until traipsing down another flight, or more, where a guard opened the locked door to the room where Bonnard’s last painting, The Almond Tree in Blossom, 1947, danced before our relieved, astonished eyes.
Thérèse rêvant (Thérèse Dreaming)
[Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski, Polish-French, 1908-2001), 1938
Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art]