(after The Parisian Life by Juan Luna)
What would they make of her
In his painting, alone at dusk,
Waiting in a café in Paris?
Perhaps one of them will peer close enough
To catch the hint of absinthe in her breath,
And she could whisper to him: there is a street
Going south to an abandoned train station
Where many stories have left their remorse
On the wrought-iron benches. She could say
There is a river on whose banks you could
Walk ten miles to a village where the mime
And the fool danced a love story like a duel:
There was once a woman and a man
Struck dumb by roses, pursued by lightning.
They were brought to their knees by bees.
She is the woman who sits here, alone in a café
At dusk in Paris, not in hope nor in regret
But in time. As if every moment now
Could be the beginning of a different story.
In 2006, I joined one of the monthly workshop meetings of the ALON Poetry Collective, composed of our MFA and PhD graduates like Dr. Shirley Lua, the late Architect Sid Gomez Hildawa, Mr. Vince Groyon, Dr. Ronald Baytan and Dr. Alice Sun-Cua. The monthly meetings are usually culinary feasts cum workshops and I remember that the members of ALON agreed to each work on a poem based on the controversial Juan Luna painting “Parisian Life,” which was at the GSIS Museum. I went to the museum and after close-reading the details of the painting and noting these down in my journal, I went home to compose my first draft. I decided from the beginning to foreground the poem’s discourse on the woman in the painting, and to make the persona speak from the present narrative time and conjecture on the implications of the fact that the woman in the painting is alone, unescorted.
In the context of the 19th century, this would have marked her as a female of questionable morals. But the persona in the poem has to note that the three young men, supposedly Filipinos in Madrid like Jose Rizal, Juan Luna and Ariston Bautista occupy the rightmost part of the painting behind the woman. They seem oblivious to the woman. But the woman’s eyes seem to suggest that she is aware of them. Instead of going into the usual stereotypes that can be engendered by just such a situation, I made the persona ask the question I myself was asking when I first viewed the painting: what would I and other Filipino viewers in the 21st century, make of her in Luna’s painting, given that she was alone that evening in a café in Paris?
The strategy enabled me to imagine the woman with a particular history and context, which became the site of the poem’s narrative. The ekphrastic strategy I used was to extend the frame of the painting to include a village at the outskirts of Paris accessible by train. The persona uses this setting to conjure a plausible story for the woman in the painting, an alternative narrative to the common and unexamined assumptions in a society where women are expected to be with a man.