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The Artist as an Old Man

 If you ask him he will talk for hours--
how at fourteen he hammered signs, fingers
raw with cold, and later painted bowers
in ladies' boudoirs; how he played checkers
for two weeks in jail, and lived on dark bread;
how he fled the border to a country
which disappeared wars ago; unfriended
crossed a continent while this century
He seldom speaks of painting now.
Young men have time and theories; old men work.
He has painted countless portraits.
Sallow nameless faces, made glistening in oil, smirk above anonymous mantelpieces.
The turpentine has a familiar smell, but his hand trembles with odd, new palsies.
Perched on the maulstick, it nears the easel.
He has come to like his resignation.
In his sketch books, ink-dark cossacks hear the snorts of horses in the crunch of snow.
His pen alone recalls that years ago, one horseman set his teeth and aimed his spear which, poised, seemed pointed straight to pierce the sun.

by Erica Jong
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