— from a photograph, circa 1912
In Millais’s painting, Ophelia dies faceup,
eyes and mouth open as if caught in the gasp
of her last word or breath, flowers and reeds
growing out of the pond, floating on the surface
around her. The young woman who posed
lay in a bath for hours, shivering,
catching cold, perhaps imagining fish
tangling in her hair or nibbling a dark mole
raised upon her white skin. Ophelia’s final gaze
aims skyward, her palms curling open
as if she’s just said, Take me.
I think of her when I see Bellocq’s photograph —
a woman posed on a wicker divan, her hair
spilling over. Around her, flowers —
on a pillow, on a thick carpet. Even
the ravages of this old photograph
bloom like water lilies across her thigh.
how long did she hold there, this other
Ophelia, nameless inmate in Storyville,
naked, her nipples offered up hard with cold?
The small mound of her belly, the pale hair
of her pubis — these things — her body
there for the taking. But in her face, a dare.
Staring into the camera, she seems to pull
all movement from her slender limbs
and hold it in her heavy-lidded eyes.
Her body limp as dead Ophelia’s,
her lips poised to open, to speak.
—Natasha Trethewey, from Bellocq’s Ophelia (Graywolf Press, 2002)
Painting: John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52.
Photograph: John Ernest Joseph Bellocq, Unidentified prostitute of Storyville, New Orleans’ legalized red light district, 1912.
Note: Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, was appointed Mississippi’s Poet Laureate this month.