courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part I Whores
It trou- bles me to think that I am suited
for this work — spectacle and fetish —
a pale odalisque. But then I recall
my earliest training — childhood — how
my mother taught me to curtsy and be still
so that I might please a white man, my father.
For him I learned to shape my gestures,
practiced expressions on my pliant face.
Later, I took arsenic — tablets I swallowed
to keep me fair, bleached white as stone.
Whiter still, I am a reversed silhouette
against the black backdrop where I pose, now,
for photographs, a man named Bellocq.
He visits often, buys time only to look
through his lens. It seems I can sit for hours,
suffer the distant eye he trains on me,
lose myself in reverie where I think most
of you: how I was a doll in your hands
as you brushed and plaited my hair, marveling
that the comb — your fingers — could slip through
as if sifting fine white flour. I could lose myself
then, too, my face — each gesture — shifting
to mirror yours as when I'd sit before you, scrubbed
and bright with schooling, my eyebrows raised,
punc- tuating each new thing you taught. There,
at school, I could escape my other life of work:
laundry, flat irons and damp sheets, the bloom
of steam before my face; or picking time,
hunchbacked in the field — a sea of cotton,
white as oblivion — where I would sink
and disappear. Now I face the camera, wait
for the photograph to show me who I am.
from Bellocq's Ophelia, Copyright 2002 by Natasha Trethewey. All rights reserved.
whores are the lowest on the ladder of status, perhaps in all of society, but certainly in the world of companionship for money. in the early 1900s, prostitution in new orleans was limited to a neighborhood nicknamed 'storyville' after mr. story, who passed that law.
e. j. bellocq, as fictionalized in louis malle's 'pretty baby,' took photographs of women who worked there. sixty years later, mayumi oda paid them tribute in woodblocks, and another thirty years after that natasha trethewey did so in verse.
each saw beyond the frame, beyond the neighborhood, to young women who had made very difficult choices. none glamorized nor condemned. it is interesting to me that we in this country have only photographs, from that time, and not the fine arts that we have from japan, and france.
it's by no means meaningless that the US was founded by puritans. this is not to say that the real lives of the women in japan and france were all that wonderful, but the art was glorious. more next post.