Charles Bernstein

Slap Me Five, Cleo, Mark's History

Hello, my name is Michael Anthony
and I have in my hand a cashier's check
for one million dollars made out
in your name. There are no conditions
on the use of this money. You can spend it
any way you want, even give some to
the Memorial Art Gallery, which needs
your support, but you know that. Donations
to the Poetics Program at the University
at Buffalo are also welcome, and for
donations of $500 or more we will include
you or your loved ones in our poems, or,
if you prefer, we can compose more poems
relating to this painting or other paintings
in the collection. —But hold on a minute,
I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me
back up. There is one condition on the million:
you are not allowed to reveal the name
of the benefactor. If I tell you his name,
I'm counting on you to keep it to yourself.
Anyway, maybe you've already guessed
that it's John Beresford Tipton. You'd
know the name if you watched The Millionaire
on TV in the 1950s. (I don't think the show's
made it yet to "Nick at Night" or "TV Land,"
but then I don't follow their programming
that closely. But I'm sure not getting
residuals, that money dried up a long time
ago.) Of course a million isn't what it used
to be, but what is? Anyway, you know, enough
about me. You didn't invite me here to talk
about myself, well you didn't invite me here
at all. So let's get on to the subject at hand,
because we haven't got all day. We see before
us Bernard Duvivier's Cleopatra. —Hey,
Jimmy! Get up from the bench, take the
headphones off, and come over here
or you won't be going to the roller rink later!

(Excuse me, I hope it won't be necessary
to interrupt this poem again, so everybody
pay attention.) Cleopatra is dated 1789,
the year of the French Revolution, so we
must first consider how this painting relates
to the momentous events of that fateful year,
for a painting is never just about its ostensive
subject but always contains within it another,
often unseen, often contradictory, subject,
played out in its form or figured in its
imagery. In this case, we must assume
some historically specific reference, some
sign of the revolution taking place
outside the artist's studio. And yet, it's
hard to see what that would be. Could it be
that Antony and Cleopatra in some way
stand for characters from the contemporary
historical drama of 1789? Cleopatra is no
Marie Antoinette, I can tell you that,
and Antony, well he's no Louis XVI,
as I am sure you would agree
if you knew Louis like I know Louis—
O! What a guy! I mean human character
is something I specialize in. And I know
Louis and Marie, not just the cardboard
images out of books but the real flesh
and blood people. Just last week, Louis,
Marie, and I had a knockout lunch with
Jack Tipton at Montrachet—the frogs legs
were delicious, crisp as a Lay's potato
chip and coated with a dazzling avocado
meringue sauce. And the patisserie
was out-of-this-world. "Let us eat ze cake,"
Louis joked, always the wise guy, but
you should have seen the look on Marie's
face: she was not amused. It was nice of
Tippy to pick up the check as the French
royals have been having a hard time
the past couple of hundred years. I mean
whether you agree with them or not, you've
got to respect the tradition they represent.
No, if we are to look for allegory in this
painting, we have to think of something
different, something more off the mark.
Perhaps the symbolic potential of middle-aged
lovers defying society? Cleopatra and Antony
look very youthful for 39 and 53—and this
is way before vitamin supplements, too.
But, let's face it, this is no Citizen Cleo
taking up arms against the old order
in the name of liberty, equality, and
fraternity. Whatever virtues the pair
may have, democracy is no part of them.
Fraternization maybe, but that's it. Duvivier
shows Cleopatra with a knife, ready to end
this mortal coil and join her beloved in that
better place just outside the frame. This is not
a revolutionary gesture but rather an
inwardly directed act of violence, suggesting
severe depression at the acute loss of a loved
one in a person without the emotional resources
to go through the grieving process and end up
a stronger, healthier, more self-empowered
individual. Such images of self-directed violence
have been shown, time and again, to have
a harmful effect on viewers, especially
a painting like this, which romanticizes suicide.
Paintings with this type of subject matter
should be restricted to patrons over 30
who can demonstrate their emotional maturity;
my only reservation about this course
of action is that it would only draw more
attention to this reprehensible glorification
of self-slaughter.—I hope you will allow
me to indulge in a personal note here.
The shame of Mark's suicide has haunted
the Antony family for generations, so much so
that when emigrating from Italy in the 1880s,
my parents changed the spelling of our
name, adding an "h" for our missing honor.
And, speaking of families, what of Mark's first
family.—Octavia and the children? Sure Queen
Cleopatra is sad, but what about them?
I wouldn't waste all your tears on Cleo.
Don't get me wrong, I understand what it's
like to be so low you think down is up. After
our show passed on.—I mean was canceled, I
still have a hard time saying that word.—I fell into
a downward spiral until I hit bottom at a dive
called At Our Place on the Bowery. That's
where I met Louis, who always wore a green
ribbon around his neck, although he would
never talk about it. Tippy tried to do what he
could, offered to cover my stay at the Betty Ford
clinic, but I had too much pride to accept his offer.
Eventually I landed a job as research assistant to
a young scholar associated with UB's Poetics
Program, who specialized in poems about paintings
and was at the time working on French neo-Classicism
à la Jacques Louis David. Anyway, and correct me
if I'm wrong, didn't Cleopatra do herself in
with an asp shortly after the scene depicted
in this painting? When she realized
that the hundreds-year-old Ptolemaic dynasty
would come to an end and Rome would rule Egypt?
When push comes to shove, it wasn't romance
that was on the Queen's mind, but the imminent
political catastrophe for her country. Maybe
that event was to be the subject of a sequel, ready to
go into production if this painting hit big box
office. Anyway, not to change the subject, but, and
check this out.—don't you think Antony looks
more like he was caught in flagrante delicto than
that he's dead? I guess that's poetic license
(how do you apply for one of those?). Alas,
none of us brings a blank slate, a tabula rasa,
an unprejudiced gaze, to the reception
of such an historically charged subject. For
example, many contemporary viewers will have
foremost in their minds the comparison
between the star-crossed lovers in this painting
and their representation in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's
1963 film version of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth
Taylor and Richard Burton, with Rex ("Dr.
Doolittle") Harrison as Julie Caesar. (Many people
think of Julie only as a take-charge military
commander and forget that he was the inspiration
for that great vocal standard, "Roman Nights of an
Egyptian Queen [Cleo's Song]"—"You came,
you saw, you conquered me.") I cannot
emphasize enough that in order to properly
understand Duvivier's painting on its own terms,
it is necessary to clear the mind of all such
overlaid images. Try to put yourself in the
position of the first viewers of this painting,
who knew nothing of Liz and Dick's shenanigans
in Rome, nor of the trials of Eddie Fisher.
Such contemporary images put a cloud
between us and this painting, a cloud that
we can only hope to vaporize by rigorous
analysis both of the painting itself and
the historical reality of that August day,
30 years before the start of the first millennium,
when people where just beginning to face
the issues around Y-zero-K (ignition, lift-off).
Let us then return to this painting, with a renewed
commitment to plumb its depth, scale its heights,
assay its thematics. No consideration of this work
would be anything but superficial if it considered
only the main actors in the unfolding drama
and overlooked the supporting cast. Let us then
turn our attention to Faith, Hope, and Larry—
the threesome just behind the stiff. Now Faith,
Faith looks like she's got Excedrin headache #49,
if not a migraine (but this was before product
placements and let me emphasize that there
are only minimal fees being paid for brand name
references in this poem). Hope seems to be
rehearsing for a Martha Graham revival. And
Larry—the guy in the lower right hand corner—
it looks like he's trying out an early version
of aerobics—"Get that knee up, all the way
up. Stretch those arms." But here's the weirdest
thing: Larry, let's call him Larry, bears an
uncanny resemblance to John Beresford Tipton.
I mean Jack Tipton always wore a suit, but
the guy in the picture has the same nose,
the same eyes, the same build. I mean explain
that. But I see I am letting the main emotional
action of the painting get away from me:
you know, the deep gaze being exchanged
by the Queen and the Roman guard Proculeius
(whose name we now associate primarily with
a common skin rash exacerbated by oil paint).
I mean, first Julius Caesar, then 'Tony, and
now … ? After all, who could resist a man
in a red dress wearing a helmet bedecked
with a long red feather? Or would you call
that a plume? I'd call it a feather but then
what do I know? I've never even been to
Egypt and I only took one summer of Latin
when I was in high school. "Julius Caesar
crossed the Rubicon." You can say that
double for Mark Antony. And while we are
on the subject, make mine a double, too,
with a twist. That's right, double or nothing,
twist and shout, but be home by 11
. Now,
before we move on to the next painting,
I want you all to notice that Proculeius's
head accessories are so much more appealing
than the rubberbanded pony tail and baseball
cap now standard for balding men of my
generation—no offense intended to you, sir,
yes you, looking away, with the bib overalls

but then perhaps Proculeius has one of those
pony tails tucked away under his helmet.
(Perhaps an x-ray of the painting is in order.)
And, hey, what's that? A miniature dragon
under the plumage? That's so cool. Anyway,
one thing's for sure, Cleopatra's sandals
are still very chic.

This was originally published in a collection of poems responding to paintings in the collection of the Rochester Memorial Art Gallery—Voices in the Gallery (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2001)

RealAudio file of Bernstein's reading at Houghton Library at Harvard College.

© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review