“Mother Asleep” after a painting by Leon Kossoff

What if the mother
          is always sick,
what if for her whole life,
          she is sick

— when we were children —
          weren’t we
always asking: is that sleep
          she is sleeping

or is it a slide toward death?
          What is it
to be always in fear,
          isn’t that ridiculous,

that one’s hug
          or one’s moving too near
could hurt?
          Isn’t that hurtful?

Don’t these thoughts
          pend on a life
like a painter’s heavy impasto?
          Don’t they distort

what he paints,
          bending it from one
understandable realm
          into the fearful next?

Seeing her in the chair,
          her head atilt,
or lying on her bed,
          the child’s eye

inevitably trailed
          away from her being there,
followed the lines
          formed by the drapery of sheets

or by the downward flow
          of hidden limbs,
— gravity pulled at the eye
          and fated it.

And isn’t this why
           Kossoff painted
a bright red blotch
          just below his mother’s left hand

— nothing structural
          in its being there
— nothing in the image
          or design to fix it,

— red blot
          of a child’s anger —
          homeless —

didn’t it wander
          like a loose speck,
like an errant cyst
          in a teary eye?

Michael Heller (© 2010)