Words for John Ruskin

 Euphemia Gray Ruskin Millais to her midwives, 1863:

 by A. McA. Miller


“God, the stench, the sweetness soaked in this

rough pad -- it’s cotton? Yes, I’m pressing

down, press down, the seventh child is

like the first in coming, press. As he’d

spell those tales again of slim white-shouldered

sails to fill the River as it ebbed,

his hand would glide along my arm, as if it

were the Golden River, I a fall

of sweet white water, trilling in the Alpine

lie of land and crumpled hills; give more,

the pad again.

                   John knew Simpson himself,

the doctor, yes, who first gave chloroform

in birthing, did you know? John sent me

to him, not for healing, but for talk

of what might yet be wrong, as if the fault

were mine. When I was twelve, it’s then John spoke

the story -- set to take me ‘far above

all these, fainter than the morning cloud,

but purer and changeless, sleeping, in blue sky,

the utmost peaks of snow.’ Yes,  Mother thought it

most uncouth I’d blush at supper, even

to my hands uncovered, at the syllable

of his name: John.

                           Now, push, the rough pad

now! Could she have felt the flush around

my heart, she’d blush herself, now dead.

Simpson vowed me not unnatural, though virgin

demonstrably, natural as now I’m birthing

one more time -- yes- more. John’s full voice

urged me, twelve years old, the features

of his family: ‘RRRuskin,’ he’d jest to father,

‘Who could find a smoother way to speak

of “rough-skin?” Such are names, and rough am I,

dear Phemie.’

                   Six years married, yet no marriage

night we had. His true reason, villainous as all

the rest was . . . he’d imagined women different

to what he saw I was, the fault -- I push --

was not my fault, that evening 10th of April:

King of the Golden River held me smooth

as the skin of my cheeks in his hands; he’d say,

‘All of you, Phemie, is so firm-turned clean --

the high madonna curve of your brow,

the scent of your arm in my rough hands.’

I’d have said him Nay, but he spoke so fine as pen

moves creamy paper. Give more, the blotter's sweet --

such Lethe in rough cotton comes!

                                                 He’d style me

‘sweet flowers growing on the rocks, bright green

moss with pale pink starry flowers, and soft

bellied gentians, more blue than the sky, and pure

white transparent lilies’ -- I’m bearing now --

‘and butterflies darted so the sky sent down

pure light.’ I would have said him Nay, said I

was bristle-rough in places even statues

hide, as those we -- married -- saw in Venice

with the plump skin of a child on sculpture,

paintings, even amatory sketches sold outright

in cathedrals! 

                   My Master, John Millais,

father of this new one, bearing down as a great

hard stool would pass me, push -- my John could limn

the facts and show them bright as Raphael

could touch. No, I was not a conscious child at twelve.

My sisters died as children -- six, five, three --

his love that thirteenth summer was as if

their . . . perfection, stilled, had passed to me.

My thirteenth summer, caught in his stories, how

conscious could I be of what his press

of raptures (I mean Ruskin’s only) urged;

of what he might expect of me that evening

in my nineteenth April, that tenth day of it,

I’d be mossed and wet as now, where

he had thought the straight lips of a child,

or statue, or the lie of painted lawn. Oh, he

was most unnatural and pardoned only now

as he is mad --

                     for Miss La Touche, not me.

Her rose at ten is smooth as parted petals:

‘Rosie,’ as he calls her. More chloroform, yes.

Simpson so prescribed; you midwives must obey!

Simpson vowed that mine was not the fault:

that labia minora may protrude, may set me walk

in a heavy pout of woman, not be strange.

John wants the petals, fold on fold, but not

the honey of a woman’s will. The rough

skein of your cloth again, I breathe; bear down,

should he make Rose immortal in a gemmed

and balanced phrase, will I be still remembered

but by children after death?

                                       The seventh’s heavy

in my waist, another meaty child to bear

the name of John Millais. Will they remember me

at all? I do recall my image in his hands

that cupped me as a story, how the river runs

the children die. And I am cold. This child within

me draws my life. Give, chloroform, relief --

no book could lend, no legend grant the life

my painter strokes me to -- no life, mad Ruskin,

in black rocks.

                    They clot your Golden River.

When this baby’s birthed, mad John, I’m scraped

clean as Carpaccio's dollie. She’s one more

Rose you’ll never shred. Two doctors, friends

of your fine Simpson, certified me still intact

the week of our annulment; John, I open now;

and I am stalled forever in your story: King

of the Golden River, chloroform and cotton

on my mouth, this child is born without you.”


Effie Gray
Painting of Effie Gray
by Thomas Richmond



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