"A Mona Lisa" is one of Grimké’s most distinctive love poems, questioning the relationship between lesbian desire and aesthetics. The poem is divided into two sections. The first section is an erotic fantasy that envisions the speaker’s seduction of the figurative Mona Lisa. The second section, in some ways more ambiguous than the first, functions to question the work of the fantasy that has just been constructed. Rather than figuring sexuality as loss, the poem moves toward an embodied or corporealized aesthetics that figures both sexuality and art as sites of material presence.
The first section opens:
I should like to creep
Through the long brown grasses
That are your lashes (lines 1-3)
The speaker’s desire remains conditional, tentative, filling the poem with careful expressions of "I would" and "I should." The poem imagines an erotic meeting that transforms the iconic object of Western art into a desiring female body. Yet, at the same time, the poem leaves open the possibility that the speaker desires the woman as art, is imagining not a transformation of canvas into body, but the radical possibility of an erotic encounter with art, the possibility that she could "creep," "cleave," and "sink" into the body of the painting. The fantastic encounter shows the way that desire blurs the line between art and the body, the material representation and the material body. The poem uses traditional metaphors of artistic representation and juxtaposes them against a body, leaving the reader to wonder which scene exactly the speaker desires:
I should like to poise
On the very brink
Of the leaf-brown pools
That are your shadowed eyes (4-7)
The "leaf-brown pools" could be meant as a traditionally poetic metaphor for the body, or a more literal description of the surface of the painting. The paint itself may be creating the leaf-brown pool of eyes, or, the poem may have already embodied the woman, and be abstracting the body in a poetic tradition of lyrical praise. What is meant as material reality in this poem, and what is meant as poetic imagination is radically uncertain. Does the poetic subject desire the materiality of paint, or the transformation of paint into the female body? Desire does not fragment here, or break the body apart, but force the presence of the material, calling attention to the materiality of the body and art. Desire between women is a very material desire, a desire that figures writing as a site of potential meeting between the lesbian body and aesthetics. The first section of the poem ends with an erotic loss of self, an abandonment of the self to pleasure:
I should like to sink down
And deeply drown. (12-15)
Some critics have read this drowning at the end of the poem as a moment indicative of Grimké’s chronic despair, and read into this loss the psychic and artistic constraints of being a black lesbian writer—the inevitable loss accompanying these identities. The moment in the poem undoubtedly points toward self-abandonment. However, its attention to the corporeal body and to aesthetics codes the poem as much more complex than self-abnegating despair. The self-abandonment at the end of the poem is an abandonment to bliss, the jouissance that Leo Bersani has termed "self-shattering," a moment that "disrupts the ego’s coherence and dissolves its boundaries" (Homos 101). The poem disrupts traditional representation, fantasizing a communion with art, and through that fantasy reconceives the relationship between the lesbian body and aesthetics. The poem ends in orgasm, the elipses of a desire so intense that it rearticulates the bounds of the self. The poem’s realization is not one of despair, but one of the radical possibilities for the desiring lesbian poetic subject. The social coding of lesbianism as an irrecoverable loss is questioned through Grimké’s linguistic fantasy, and her attention to the corporeal presence of the lesbian body in art.
In the second section, the poem appears to shift outward, as if it is reading the first section and writing questions in response:
Would I be more than a bubble breaking?
Or an ever widening circle
Ceasing at the marge?
Would my white bones
Be the only white bones
Wavering back and forth, back and forth
In their depths? (16-22)
The section leaves the reader unsure where exactly the questions issue from. The section may represent a type of "awakening" out of the fantasy structure. As if she were questioning the ramifications of seducing a woman out of art, of embodying a woman and eroticizing art itself: "Would I be more than a bubble breaking?" Are the questions in response to lesbian desire itself? Or, are they in response to writing itself? To art? In addition to these fundamental ambiguities, the questions themselves are less than clear. The first two questions seem to point toward the tentative nature of erotic subjectivity, as if the speaker is aware that the pleasure she has located exists only in a moment. The "bubble breaking" would be the pleasure dissipating. Similarly, the "ever widening circle / Ceasing at the marge" seems to suggest a fear that the work of pleasure leads only to a wider expanse of power, a new relationship to art and the body, perhaps, but not the ultimate transgression that the poem desires. The transgression that the poem seems to envision is not a transcendence of the self, but a self-shattering that resituates a non-identitarian, desiring body in relation to art. The final question, with its suggestive "white bones" remains even more ambiguous, possibly, than the first two. The "my white bones" evokes a difference between surface and interior, as with the poem’s questioning of the painting surface and the woman inside. Grimké has here reduced personal identity to "white bones" leaving race, gender, and any real personal distinctions impossible or irrelevant. She has, in a sense, flattened the surface of the body to correspond to the two-dimensional surface of a painting, removing any distinction between interior and exterior, personal and public, or self and other.
Gloria Hull writes that in many of Grimké’s love lyrics, "the loved one is wreathed in whiteness" (Color, Sex, and Poetry 141). Here, however, it is not the loved one who is shrouded in whiteness (though the Mona Lisa was not black), but the speaker, her racial difference, or any surface personality traits and characteristics rendered obsolete, all people reduced to "white bones." The question suggests that Grimké desires knowing if other women (or men) have attempted what she is attempting, have desired what she has desired. The poem ends with this question, highlighting the already present ambiguity. What remains certain in the poem is this deep longing, the fantastic desire that the poet has envisioned. That this desire will have deep and lasting implications for the speaker and for society seems clear: what does this desire mean? What does writing this desire mean? Is this desire incompatible with identity—with racial identity? The poem leaves these questions unanswered, and possibly unanswerable, pointing toward the difficulties of negotiating race, sexuality, and aesthetics as a scene of writing.
Copyright © 2001 by Melissa Girard