[36] A Prayer in the Plague Year, Twelve Reflections on Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Michael Salcman

A Prayer in the Plague Year

Dear invisible mother can you hear the mourner’s Kaddish
I’m saying for you on the anniversary of your death
standing shoe-less in my bedroom facing East,
my prayer led by a rabbi and cantor I’m seeing streamed
in the invisible ether from a holy temple emptied by fear
of an invisible foe? Dear invisible mother do you hear
the invisible minion of ten, times ten, perhaps hundreds
standing alone but together in other rooms and houses
praying to an invisible God for rescue and consolation?
Is there enough breath in our song to reach you or Him?
I remember how He saved you in Europe only to take you
too soon in America, how you never saw the grandchildren.
Dear invisible mother make me remember your power
of love and imagination, and see me see me standing here.


Twelve Reflections on Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

I-The devil follows me day and night because he is afraid to be alone.

Even under a sunless sky I am chased by my shadow;
at each street corner
one of us smiles, the other laughs or cries.

II-Pain has its reasons, pleasure is totally indifferent.

Pain is automatic and protective; a simple toothache signals
deep into the brain.
Pleasure is only a happy accident, our nerve endings twitching
together at a frequency we can’t remember.

III-If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts.

I don’t have enough shirts and must scrub my brain free from old ideas.
Unfortunately, a cleaned brain sometimes fractures like parchment
revealing a mirage in the desert,
the brain as a metaphor making machine.

IV-My ass contemplates those who talk behind my back.

We all have our critics.
The composer Max Reger sent this response to a newspaper:
“I sit in the smallest room in my house,
your review is before me, soon it will be behind me.”

V-We are ignorant of our acts until we accomplish them.

This was how Dada worked—Picabia did all the talking,
Marcel got all the fame,
two leopards in the same cage
one always changing his spots while the other would not.

VI-Between my head and my hand, there is always the face of death.

The execution of a thought takes time
often a minute, sometimes a year, rarely an entire life
until there are no thoughts, no time.

VII-The only way to win is to fight on the side of your adversaries.

I am like the spies Joshua sent to Jericho.
My loved ones think I’m invisible or deaf and can’t hear them plotting.
Though undefined like smoke or air or words I have a shape, even a smell.

VIII-The essence of a man is found in his faults.

I’m filled with faults like a volcano or tectonic plates—
greedy, envious, dreaming of alternative lovers I will eat
a lion on a dry plain.

IX-Only useless things are indispensable.

I collect battle ribbons and old toys, Matryoshka that no longer surprise.
I remember wooden wheels and gears stuck together by plastic tubes
a child once built into machines, the same masterpiece over and over.

X-Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.

A square head points two ways, back into the future or forward into the past.
Like religious faith or a snail’s slimy trail we ignore the present.
I am the evidence. Thank you for your patience.

XI-Good taste is as tiring as good company.

Not a joke: three artists did not go into a bar but took a car ride
into the French countryside.
In July of 1912, Picabia drives (after all, it’s his car)
Debussy and Apollinaire sit in the back egging him on
about the impossibility of pure painting, pictures without subjects.
After drinking a lot Picabia rushes back to his studio
and turns abstract into a noun. He says

My painting is a contest between life and sleep.

XII-Knowledge is an old error remembering its youth.

In his long life Picabia makes many errors
gains much knowledge but little wisdom.
He wrote paralysis is the first stage of wisdom
but lived like a comet in constant motion.
He was not like us but we are like him.

[Section titles and two lines in italics are bon mots by Francis Picabia.]

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