Brain Pickings

Patti Smith Reads Her Poetic Tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, Plus Her Handwritten Verses

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“Blessedness is within us all.”

“The mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem, for nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise,” Coleridge asserted. “Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge — it is as immortal as the heart of man,” Wordsworth famously proclaimed. Nowhere is this dual definition more ablaze with life than in The Coral Sea (public library) by the eclectically brilliant Patti Smith — a breathtaking collection of prose poems exorcising Smith’s profound grief for her lifelong spirit-mate, beloved photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989). She describes the collection as “a season in grief” and writes:

All that I knew of him encrypted within a small suite of prose poems. They speak of his love for art, his patron Sam Wagstaff, and his caring for me. But most importantly his resolute will to live, that could not be contained, not even in death.

Her short foreword stirs the soul intensely:

The first time I saw Robert he was sleeping. I stood over him, this boy of twenty, who sensing my presence opened his eyes and smiled. With few words he became my friend, my compeer, my beloved adventure.

When he became ill I wept and could not stop weeping. He scolded me for that, not with words but with a simple look of reproach, and I ceased.

When I saw him last we sat in silence and he rested his head on my shoulder. I watched the light changing over his hands, over his work, and over the whole of our lives. Later, returning to his bed, we said goodbye. But as I was leaving something stopped me and I went back to his room. He was sleeping. I stood over him, a dying man, who sensing my presence opened his eyes and smiled.

When he passed away I could not weep so I wrote. Then I took the pages and set them away. Here are those pages, my farewell to my friend, my adventure, my unfettered joy.

At the recent opening of exhibition of the same title at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center — which also gave us Smith’s delightful lettuce soup recipe for starving artists — I recorded Smith’s moving reading of some poems from the book and photographed the handwritten originals of the poems, below, on display at the CAC.

I had the pleasure of hearing — and, to our shared delight, recording — Smith’s reading my favorite poem from the book, the stirring “Reflecting Robert”:

Blessedness is within us all
It lies upon the long scaffold
Patrols the vaporous hall
In our pursuits, though still, we venture forth
Hoping to grasp a handful of cloud and return
Unscathed, cloud in hand. We encounter
Space, fist, violin, or this — an immaculate face
Of a boy, somewhat wild, smiling in the sun.
He raises his hand, as if in carefree salute
Shading eyes that contain the thread of God.
Soon they will gather power, disenchantment
They will reflect enlightenment, agony
They will reveal the process of love
They will, in an hour alone, shed tears.
His mouth a circlet, a baptismal font
Opening wide as the lips of a damsel
Sounding the dizzying extremes.
The relativity of vein, the hip of unrest
For the sake of wing there is shoulder.
For symmetry there is blade.
He kneels, humiliates, he pierces her side.
Offering spleen to the wolves of the forest.
He races across the tiles, the human board.
Virility, coquetry all a game — well played.
Immersed in luminous disgrace, he lifts
As a slave, a nymph, a fabulous hood
As a rose, a thief of life, he will parade
Nude crowned with leaves, immortal.
He will sing of the body, his truth
He will increase the shining neck
Pluck airs toward our delight
Of the waning
The blossoming
The violent charade
But who will sing of him?
Who will sing of his blessedness?
The blameless eye, the radiant grin
For he, his own messenger, is gone
He has leapt through the orphic glass
To wander eternally
In search of perfection
His blue ankles tattooed with stars.

The Coral Sea is sublime in its entirety, as is Smith’s album of the same title.

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