by Kip Knott
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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.