From Issue 17: "Matisse's Two Dancers," by David Moolten (Poetry)

Reading time: Approximately 3 minutes

This poem, "Matisse's Two Dancers," by David Moolten, makes an impact with a gentle hand. In this way, this work succeeds for me in its ekphrasis--the lines and images are as quiet and full of a graceful beauty as the dancers described. It takes talent as a poet to create a mirroring work, to show in words what an artist has done in different medium.  But more than a simple mirror, this type of poem must also stand alone for what it offers the reader. For me as an editor, Moolten's keystroke finds the pathway to both.  

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Mare Heron Hake

Poetry Editor


Matisse's Two Dancers



by David Moolten


For Odette


He doesn’t sweep her off her feet

or need to. She’s light

as paper, cut from it like a doll,

and there’s only one bent leg, a bit of torso, the tail

of that yellow dress.

She’s mostly bird now, and he nothing

but silhouette. He’s lost his head

though it’s right there, floating like her

just above him and the gravity

of his life, the funks, the wars. You can still see

the thumbtacks

holding the blue scraps of 1937

together as if all that’s about to fall

never will and there were no difference

between her and the touching

confidence he has in this moment

of preposterous suspense, the air

he holds and beholds

with his outstretched arms, suffering merely

a flourish, one of the steps.



David had this to say about "Matisse's Two Dancers":

I’ve always given my daughter writings as presents, at first crude children’s books I illustrated, some with construction paper cut-outs, infinitely less inspired than Matisse’s. When she grew older, these became poems. Odette, like many girls, had ballet aspirations. Though quite talented, she moved on to other things. Years later, she confessed one reason was a comment I’d made regarding the difficult life ballerinas led. Memory is fuzzy, but I’d probably begun fretting about her need to dance en pointe, which implied real commitment, real costs. I meant to inform not discourage, but protecting her from pain I clumsily ended up the instrument of it. Unlike me, Odette is a gifted artist, and though she no longer dances, she will always be a dancer.

David’s most recent book, Primitive Mood (2009), won the T. S. Eliot Prize from the Truman State University Press.