As a teacher and a part-time art dealer, I am an avid patron of art museums who typically visits museums throughout the Midwest and Appalachia several times a year. Due to the stay-at-home mandates in Ohio during 2020, however, I was limited to either conducting my museum visits virtually or thumbing through my own collection of art books to satisfy my cravings. I found myself returning again and again to The Helga Pictures by Andrew Wyeth. The story of Wyeth’s and Helga Testorf’s self-imposed isolation from the prying eyes of the public for nearly 15 years so that he could produce more than 240 portraits of her really struck a chord with me. The poems that make up the Andrew and Helga sequence were all written during that stay-at-home period and reflect the sense of isolation that many people felt at the height of the pandemic. In a very real sense, these poems could not have been written in the same way under “normal” writing conditions.
When Mark Danowsky accepted the sequence “Andrew and Helga, Lost and Found” for ONE ART, he challenged me to write a series of poems based on the paintings of Jamie Wyeth, Andrew’s son. I accepted the challenge and immediately began an in-depth exploration of Jamie’s paintings. I found myself particularly drawn to his many excellent portraits of people and animals, portraits that did more than merely replicate the appearance of his subjects. Just as his father’s portraits of Helga reveal a startling intimacy between the artist and his subject, Jamie’s portraits convey a similar intimacy that pulls the viewer into the worlds and emotions of his subjects, be they pigs or people. In just two months, I had written three poetry sequences based on eight of Jamie’s paintings. When read together, the poems based on Andrew’s paintings and the poems based on Jamie’s paintings coalesce into conversation between a father and his son about intimacy, love, family, and—above all else—art.
Andrew and Helga, Lost and Found
I’m a secretive bastard. I would never let anybody watch me painting. It would be like somebody watching you have sex—painting is that personal to me.
— Andrew Wyeth
I’m supposed to be the mystery woman, something lost and found.
— Helga Testorf
I. Black Velvet, 1972
I have completed God’s work, creating you as a constellation with the empty spaces between stars
filled in and fully realized. I have made you whole yet weightless, luminous in the perfect darkness
of the universe, God-like in your own right. Or, more truthfully, a Goddess reclining
on the backs of prayers that slip silently from the lips of supplicants. Every night, believers look up
to you for guidance before being pulled down into sleep, the only world where we exist
alone with nothing, or no one, to hold onto.
II. Sheepskin, 1973
There is something you’re not telling me, something I try to conjure out of you with a tempera potion
born out of rabbit-skin glue, distilled water, crushed marble, honey, egg yolks, and beeswax.
You don’t keep the secret in your eyes, as a layman would believe. Nor can it be found like the remnants
of a whispered prayer in the creases surrounding your enigmatic mouth.
A mouth that refuses to betray a smile or a frown. A mouth that once formed the word yes
when I asked if I could capture them—and you—in ink and paint. You keep your secret in your hands,
not as one might protect the delicate papier-mâché of a robin’s egg found abandoned beneath a hedgerow,
but as one cups a firefly, its tiny, otherworldly light just barely illuminating the narrow gaps
that never fully seal between closed fingers.
III. Easter Sunday, 1975
Runnels of stubborn snow shroud the muddy ground surrounding you and, by extension, me.
When I found you four Easters ago, I knew I had found the hollow place where the desire that I feared
had died was actually hiding, very much alive, thrumming like a hive: the desire to be divorced from all
expectations and preconceptions of the artist, the father, and the husband I had to be.
You gave me permission to paint for myself, to personify in you every secret I keep,
to finally release my soul from gray barnboard and brown barley grass and live in the world again
as flesh, blood, and bone. Now, on this Easter Sunday, in an otherwise barren landscape,
you are my one promise of green.
IV. Drawn Shade, 1977
I am a witness to your aging in a light of my own making, and I will I carefully catalogue
every new silver strand that appears like a shiny trinket pilfered by a magpie and woven into
the tasseled cornsilk of your hair. Already your downy temples have begun their transformation.
Soon, your mossy brows will glint like cattails gone to seed. Even the gosling fuzz softly covering
your cheeks will pale from amber to the white of milkweed silk. And eventually, naturally,
the perfect nest resting between your thighs will glitter and shine as if gilded by winter
with jewels of snowflakes and hoarfrost.
V. Braids, 1979
There are moments when you won’t even tell me what you see when you look away
as I pull your gaze out of the darkness surrounding you. I want you to reveal everything to me
freely so that I may capture in the contours of your face the shadows of your thoughts,
the full truth of you. When you look into the distance, look for me. Stand behind me
as I paint you. I want you to see your face as I do, a wolf moon rising
out of a January wheat field not yet blanketed by snow, gradually eclipsed
by the penumbra of your auburn hair.
VI. Night Shadow, 1979
Beneath my hand, you exist in both darkness and light. I hover above
you, the form of my shadow diaphanous and dissipating, a storm cloud releasing
everything it holds: water, ice, lightning, thunder. I rain down upon your body
and baptize you.
VII. In the Doorway, 1981
This is our house, a place for our prying eyes and ours alone: yours trying to see in me
the way that I see you; my own studying every particle of your being as an astronomer studies
the depths of the universe hoping to find the beginning of all creation. You stand naked,
filling the entrance both with the white light of stars and the dark matter that fills
the emptiness between them all. You and the doorway have become one and the same.
To enter our house means entering you.
VIII. Helga’s Words
quotes by Helga taken from the short documentary film Helga (Running Stag Productions, 2018)
He said I was his silent sounding board. He said there must be silence to realize what is behind the world.
He said I was starved. He said he gave me what I wanted and got what he wanted from me.
He said our time together was a dream. He said he was afraid of the dream disappearing if we talked about it.
I dreamed that I had fallen in love, and when I woke, I knelt
at the end of my bed and said, “Let it be true. Please
let it be true.” But how do you explain a dream? I knew
he was always painting himself in me. I knew I was a figment of his imagination.
Like a leaf blowing in the wind, I was there, but not there.
Three Portraits of a Sow
. . . if you get to know pigs, they’re very moody. They’re not sweet little animals at all. That’s what I like about them. They get depressed . . . — Jamie Wyeth
I. Portrait of Pig, 1970
Her teats dangle, flaccid and empty.
Her corkscrew tail has come unwound.
The eye we see remains screwed shut tight
as bristly fur and hay needle her skin.
Withered cobs at her feet bear
no sign of a mother’s appetite or desire
now that her suckling litter is off to slaughter.
II. Night Pigs, 1979
The cockerel will wait until sunrise to crow its condolences.
There’s nothing more for the boar to do tonight but sleep.
They leave the sow to sit litterless in golden lamplight
(continued, new stanza) beneath her own growing shadow blackening the wall above them all.
III. Winter Pig, 1975
She knows what can be found at the heart
of a whiteout because she stares into one kind of abyss
or another with every sunrise. She knows the cold, too,
the way its emptiness stings like frostbite
in the wind that blows across her empty teats.
And she knows just four hoof-steps
over the splintered threshold will deliver her into
a world of her own making at a time of her own choosing.
Surrounded by the Sea
Islands intrigue me. You can see the perimeters of your world. —Jamie Wyeth
I. Orca, 1990
I have painted your hands as pointed and sharp
as any harpoon that pierced a leviathan’s heart.
Now you must choose for yourself: Ishmael or Ahab?
Will you live to tell your own story? Or will you doom yourself
to a slow death floating among the flotsam of a ship
shattered by the mortal sin some god demands we fight?
There is nothing more I can do. I have given you all the knives
you need to flay this life to the bone.
II. Screen Door to the Sea, 1994
You clearly want to leave. The door stands ajar.
What is keeping you from disappearing into the sea-spray
and salt air? What is keeping you from slipping out
before the clock strikes twelve? What is keeping your eyes
locked on mine, your hands fidgeting like gulls near the surf line?
Why do I make you stay? What is keeping me
from painting the doorway empty like an open mouth crying out for you
after you have walked away?
III. Other Voices, 1995
Your fingertips caress the locked door, feel the pulse
of a muffled conversation like some version of Braille
you have not learned how to decipher. The voices on the other side
could be inviting you to enter, to walk on through without turning back
and lock the door behind you. Or they could be telling you to stay patient
with the world in which you live, to just turn around and go back home.
And then again, there might not be any voices at all; it might just be the sea.
All I know is that there is still time enough for you to live your life
on this side of the threshold. Whenever you feel the need to leave,
I swear to you I will paint the key.
Every Portrait Is a Self-Portrait
“I’m not just interested in fascinating faces or trees. I want to bore in deeper.” — Jamie Wyeth
I. Portrait of Andrew Wyeth, 1969
All fathers are oak trees to their sons, massive and domineering, casting a broad shadow across whatever field they claim. Though their roots run shallow, they run wide, rippling out and out from their thick trunk in search of water to feed their leaves and drink the world dry. It only takes a tiny injury—a broken branch, a redheaded woodpecker’s jackhammer bill, a passing bear claw scratch—to seed a burl that will keep expanding until the tree dies. What wound did you inflict to make the burl of your father’s face grow?
II. Pumpkin Head (Self-Portrait), 1972
Pumpkins grow best atop the ground rather than below, unburdened by the weight of earth and the tangle of roots. Every autumn we cut them and gut them and stuff them with candles until they smile brightly in spite of their own defilement. The Jack-O-Lantern that hides your own face stares at the world with empty eyes and a jagged, maniacal smile. You are the sole sign of life rising out of this fallow winter field. Unable to overcome the cold, your pumpkin head hangs in a blank canvas sky like a wan and sallow sun.
Kip Knott’s most recent full-length collection of poetry, Clean Coal Burn, is available from Kelsay Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barren, Drunk Monkeys, Harpy Hybrid Review, HAD, La Piccioletta Barca, (mac)ro(mic), and New World Writing. More of his writing may be accessed at kipknott.com.