Photograph of Eleanor as a Hula Girl, 1943

There is a tropic story here: Eleanor reclining like Yadwigha
in a phony grass skirt under a coconut palm, cocktail-length
cellophane “grass” in black and white

as if Rousseau might still step forward across the wild
century to paint in gigantic flame-tree and philodendron
leaves all over the negative. No false

eroticism, airbrushed skin. No gooseflesh erased. Now splice
these images together: the dark smile, the greasy wartime
lipstick, to a marriage in tatters, a life in shreds. Fast

forward to Eleanor—older now, shuffling—her left leg in a brace;
among cool fronds of museum light, manikins in pongee dresses,
bosoms trussed, bodices laced. The past as display: plastic

ladies leaning on silken parasols, going nowhere at all.
This is how memory trims and poses, how the mind pretends
back, until history is artifact. Something is always cut away,

sized down, stitched over. A camera obscura loophole eye snaps
shut like covered buttons. What is real? Nervous hula girl
jitters or glamour girl shivers under a sequined halter?

How much of the past is purely decorative? Maybe the sun
was throwing a yellow tantrum above the fading celluloid sky,
while the days and weeks spun by, like drunk bombardiers

to waltz time on a dance floor crowded with brevity and fear.
Maybe the sky was a fickle blue god who plugged his ears
when the woman wept underneath the grassy tassel

of her future. And maybe the whole photograph is
invented, Eleanor not even Eleanor—cellophane sand, sunlight skirt,
even a sarong of daytime moon—though the curve of the palm tree

echoes the flex of her waist, and the pathos is real.

Susan Kelly-DeWitt | Mudlark No. 33
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