Valentine Godé-Darel (1873–1915): Five Paintings by Ferdinand Hodler

This beautiful head, this whole body, like a Byzantine empress on the mosaics of Ravenna—and this nose, this mouth—and the eyes, they too, those wonderful eyes—all these the worms will eat. And nothing will remain, absolutely nothing!

—Hodler, letter to Hans Mühlestein, ca. late 1914

 

1915 The Dead Valentine Godé-Darel

 

Someone has buckled black shoes on her feet.

          The lines in the painting sweep horizontally, 

                    for All things have a tendency towards the horizontal, to spread out

          like water on the earth. Her body is a solitary animal

on its way to the dirt. Three blue stripes mark the wall 

          above the bed—are they sky, water, or empty of meaning? 

                    The indifferent flatness of the mattress, her bed frame,

          the wooden floor—her thin arms resting on her belly.

This is what’s left. The pure unanimated flesh of her.

          Hodler kept painting, five oils the day after her death. 

                    But why those shoes? The polished shine of the hides. 

 

1915 The Dying Valentine Godé-Darel

 

The morning before she died, her shorn head rests

          against the white pillow. White sheets, mouse-gray walls. 

                    No roses, no clocks, no weeping willow. Her nose is larger now.

          Her eyes and mouth are wide open, she is almost a corpse. 

Life slips in and out of her slowing breath like a shadow. Her mouth is a heart-

          shaped cave. Once her lover craved her body.

                    Over two hundred paintings, and still he documents the changes.

          He observes her. His obsessive brush—does love move it?

Or does he paint despite their love? He stays by her bed. 

          Once, he knelt before her and leaned his head against her belly.

                    The muscle in her throat stands out like a welt.

          There is not a streak of red in the room.

 

1914 Valentine Godé-Darel in Bed, with Clock and Roses

 

Eyeing the wall, she has turned her gaze from the painter.

          Though he’s two decades older, she’s the one dying. 

                    Her black braid reaches her shoulder. A green stripe

          crawls up her neck. Her fingers rest, long and unclenched.

Three red roses float vaseless at the foot of her bed.

          And in the right top corner, a tiny clock. Time consumes,

                    merciless as a mountain. Even mountains wear down

          with age and they lie flat like water. But not yet, not yet.

There are the roses, and the clock, and the embroidery smocked

          on her sleeve—three silver circles—such stubborn prettiness.

 

1914 The Sick Valentine Godé-Darel in Bed, with Folded Hands

 

The red of her hair has darkened. Her fingers are clasped, as if in prayer.

          But she is not praying. Those eyes—

          how fiercely they stare at her lover as he paints her.

          She is propped up on her pillow, too weak to sit on her own.

He mixes sage and brown, filling in the angles at her cheekbones.

          Grief, rage, pity—a pair of unreadable eyes—

          wet against the vertical peach strokes of her face. 

 

1913 Valentine Godé-Darel with Disheveled Hair

 

Her head’s upright and tilted slightly to one side.

          Consciousness of beauty tumbles from her face

                    like her unbound auburn hair. That ballerina’s neck,

          the slightly open, slightly smiling mouth. Another woman 

could imagine the pleasure of kissing her. Or of feeding 

          her slices of cold apple, the flesh as white as her teeth. 

                    Her eyes are so heavy with love that her lids droop. 

          Soon, she will bear a daughter. How fruitful her body.

An empress, a painter, a muse, a woman whose breasts are starting to ripen.

 

Anya Silver’s first book of poetry, The Ninety-Third Name of God, was published by the Louisiana State University Press in 2010; her second, I Watched Her Disappear, is forthcoming from the same in 2014. Her work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, in Ted Kooser’s syndicated column American Life in Poetry, and on Poetry Daily. Living and thriving with advanced breast cancer for the past eight years, Silver teaches English at Mercer University and lives in Macon, Georgia, with her husband and son.