Mona Lisa Suite

Mark Johnston

1. She Remembers Her Youth

It wasn’t much.
I sat around
trying to smile,
feeling enigmatic.
Boys considered me
off limits.
They were wrong.
Girls thought
I was aloof.
They were wrong.
The usual smiling dolls.
The usual parties.
The usual dresses.
Father said
I was nothing
but a pretty face.
He died.
Mother did too.
The usual funerals.
I thought it was
all mysterious.
I was right.

2. She Remembers Her First Sexual Encounter

Giacomo didn’t know
any more than I did.
My parents were
out for the day.
We were in the pantry,
away from the maid.
I had my clothes on.
He had trouble
hoisting my petticoats.
He almost gave up.
Giacomo was so short
he had to stand
on a sack of flour.
It wasn’t very pleasant,
but I didn’t mind.
Giacomo minded.
And his feet left
two rounded dents
in the flour-sack
and a trail of white prints.

3. She sits for Leonardo

I had gas that day,
and the room was stifling.
Da Vinci took forever.
“Sit still,” he said.
I kept thinking
of Giacomo burrowing
under my petticoats,
his shoes white
with flour.
Da Vinci said
“You’re smiling
too much.. Think
of something unpleasant.”
I thought of the small hairs in his nostrils.
“Now you look disgusted,”
he said. So I thought
of Leonardo’s nostrils
and Giacomo’s white
feet at the same time.
“Perfect,” he said.
“A smile for the ages.”

4. She Describes Her Complexion

Jaundice never glowed so
much as I do.
I look too tan
for a Renaissance woman.
I remind myself of a coin.
I am white
but there is no white
in me. Pater
spoke of animalism,
lust, mysticism,
the sins of the Borgias.
Imagine making
skin the color
of the Borgias’ sins.
Instead, imagine
marble caught
in the light of dusk.
Now imagine that
same marble coming
to life as you
look at it.
That marble has
my face and knows
what you are thinking.

5. Mona Lisa Without the Mona Lisa

A parapet, behind which
you can infer a drop
of thirty to fifty feet.
A book atop
a chair arm.
Some small hills,
and a road winding
through them.
A ragged-edged
body of murky water.
Waning light.
A sky that looks
like the outskirts of heaven.
In the center
lies a space
of unpainted canvas
in the shape of
a woman
whom you
try to imagine.
Something tells you
she looks like
Leonardo himself.
Then again,
you are not sure.
You uncertainty
is Mona Lisa.

Mark Johnston is a Professor of English at Quinnicpiac University in Hamden, CT. His poems and stories have appeared in Rattle, The Georgia Review, Barrow Street, and other journals. He has published a collection of poems, Out Into the End of Time (Mellon Poetry Press, 1998).