“In the same way we misunderstand the child ballerinas of Degas”

by Laura Read

“In every alley of the theatre loom the silhouettes of portly gentlemen in top hats who have come to take their pleasure with these skinny half-naked adolescents. They too will have learned to mime desire.”
–Germaine Greer

But what if they have come instead to make pleasure
by force? Sometimes the body flushes
when it shouldn’t. Someone says,
I am going to teach you something.
In college, I kept buying posters of women lying down.
I didn’t notice until I was lying down
and saw them all at once.
Some of them were dead. Like Ophelia.
Or the woman in the moat with the man on the horse
in the background. It wasn’t clear if he had put
her there or had come to get her out.
Edgar Degas did not paint girls lying down.
He liked women at work: milliners, laundresses,
dancers back stage, bending and stretching.
Women alone, women who didn’t want to be watched.
Or did they? I want you to notice me tucking this curl
behind my ear, widening my eyes in a way
you might find becoming, exhaling so my chest rises
and falls a little and you think of a breeze lifting
a curtain. But you should also know that I’m serious.
I like how Degas washed a whole room of dancers
in green or blue. How the tint of the shadow depended
on what they were doing with their bodies
on that particular day in that particular room,
how beauty is the same in its costume but also
slightly different each moment
like how that leaf fell on your hair and startled you.
Degas was anti-Semitic.
In a discussion of beauty, let us not forget ugliness.
The boy bagged groceries. He put everything
on your mother’s list in the bag with his hands
while his eyes pinned you to his
and his lips smiled like he was pleased
with the way the sun looked going down
over the field he’d just harvested.