Dear Viewer of My Naked Body: on Robert Townsend and the Oxford 12
by Beth Ann Fennelly, former poet laureate of Mississippi, 2016 to 2021.
Say you happened to find yourself strolling through a museum or gallery showing Robert Townsend’s series of giant nudes. You’d have no reason to assume the subjects are connected. They could hail from different states or different countries. They could have lived in different time periods, if Rob’s series had drawn from photos he’d taken over the decades. After all, nude portraits lack our best clue for guessing a person’s provenance: clothing.
But these twelve subjects are indeed connected. They live in the same small town: mine. Oxford, Mississippi. Population 27,531, though that number drops when the University of Mississippi students are out of town, and it can bloat to 200,000 when there’s an SEC football game. Not every one of these twelve subjects knows every other subject, but we all know some. If you lived in Oxford, you would, too. From one, you’d accept an old fashioned as he leaned over his marble-topped bar. Another would lower a plate of shrimp and grits to your table draped with white linen. One might Velcro the blood-pressure sleeve to your bicep and pump it snug. One might teach you how to do “the hundreds” in Pilates. Another might teach you how to fix your comma splice. Which is to say: a fairly representative cross section.
You’d have no way of knowing the connection between the twelve subjects, because the shared connection of place is invisible, and portraits are limited to the visible.
That’s why I’m writing this essay. I’m using my words like rain-beads on a spider web; I’m using my words to make the web visible.
Is Oxford special, or is it merely special to me because it belongs to me?
I would have found people to love any place I ended up, and I think any place can become lovable, but I’d still argue that, compared to other towns, Oxford has more cool per capita. More makers: more artists, musicians, chefs, and writers. Especially writers. Our town is lousy with writers. My friend, the writer Ralph Eubanks, had a photo taken of Oxford’s published authors for his book A Place Called Mississippi. There are forty authors in the photo. And that’s merely the ones who were in town and could be lured from the City Grocery bar.
Like any college town, Oxford has a youthful energy, and that’s attractive. But college towns in extremely conservative states also serve a crucial function. They become havens. They are bubbles of tolerance that withstand enormous external pressure. The pressure turns them into diamonds. So, say you’re queer in the Bible Belt. Maybe you made it all the way to Atlanta. Or maybe you’re more of a small-town person, and you moseyed on over to Oxford, and you took a deep breath. Home, you exhaled. Maybe not Home free: Oxford can still be intolerant, ignorant, sure. But it’s a heck of a lot more tolerant than wherever you started out. Your relationship toward your new home will contain a smidge of gratitude, and that makes you a nice person to be around. Grateful people are nice people to be around.
My friend McGhee has her own theory about Oxford’s enchantment: it makes room for tall poppies.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Tall Poppy Syndrome. The term originates from a story recorded by Livy, the Ancient Roman historian. Livy wrote of a tyrant, Tarquin the Proud, who was inciting his son, Sextus, to seize a neighboring city. Sextus asked his father for strategy. Tarquin, it is written, said not a word, but rose and strode out to the garden, unsheathed his sword, and made a vicious swipe across the flower bed, beheading the tallest poppies. Sextus understood: to overtake the neighboring city, he should kill its most powerful aristocrats. He did, and the city swiftly fell.
Now, when people refer to Tall Poppy Syndrome, they mean the phenomena in which people who stand out due to their success get cut down by their peers, targeted by criticism.
McGhee introduced me to this concept late one night at a dinner party at a farm just outside of town, a motley group of Oxford folks aged thirty through sixty. Some of the guests were newish friends and after a glass or three of wine each relayed the story of ending up in Oxford. One person had grown up nearby, but his town was an unhappy place for him because he didn’t fit in. McGhee noted that the traits that kept him from fitting in there are the exact traits that have helped him achieve happiness and success here. “Oxford is good soil for transplanted tall poppies,” she said.
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.
It’s a small city, Oxford, as I’ve mentioned. But because of the University of Mississippi, there are conferences and lectures and concerts and so on, people speaking foreign languages—my favorite easy listening music—all of it Red Bull for the sluggish brain, opportunities to learn something new, meet someone new, think something new. But even apart from the University, the town has its own deep charm and literary history. People say “There’s something in the water,” but I think there’s something in the Square—the courthouse square around which the town is oriented. The clock-towered courthouse has shade trees nestled close, park benches. The visual that mars this pastoral is the Confederate statue, erected in 1906, evidence of our state’s contentious history and a reminder of justice denied to Black Mississippians at that very courthouse. Until a few years back, a similar monument existed at the entrance to the University, but we’ve gotten it moved. Moving the courthouse statue has proved more problematic. It’s not in the City of Oxford’s jurisdiction but Lafayette County’s, a reminder that our town isn’t quite the bubble we pretend but rather is deeply enmeshed in the state’s conservative ideologies.
But to zoom out from there to appreciate the vitality of the Oxford Square: all four sides
are lined with independently owned restaurants, boutiques, and businesses.
Environmental psychologists have written much in recent years on the “restorative potential” of central squares. According to the Project for Public Spaces, a well-designed town square encourages interactions and the exchange of ideas, decreases crime, improves mental health, and supports democratic values. Don’t get me wrong—Oxford, like every other American city, has tentacles of strip malls and dollar stores. But the Square is the town’s beating heart, as revealed by the fact that all directions start there (“From the Square, you turn right on Lamar. . .”). The most important business on the Square is Square Books, often listed as the best bookstore in the South, sometimes the best in the country. The owner of the bookstore is not only the former president of the American Booksellers Association but a former two-term mayor of Oxford, which should tell you a good bit about Oxford values. Three offshoots of that main bookstore—children’s books, rare books, and used/remainders—sit at catty-corners. I feel pretty safe in declaring that Oxford is probably the only American town of its size with four indie bookstores, much less four bookstores on a four-sided square.
And down the road (“from the Square, you turn right on Lamar. . .”) is Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home, now a museum, luring fans to the stately Greek Revival where, in a back room, Faulkner penciled on the wall the outline for A Fable. You can walk through the deep woods surrounding his house, tall elms and oaks cresting ridges that drop off into ravines, and you know that these are the same woods Faulkner walked—these woods, this town and the surrounding county forming the “little postage-stamp of native soil” that he claimed sufficient for a lifetime of inspiration.
So there’s the college-town-grateful-exhalation part, and the tall-poppies-flourish-here part, and the town-has-a-square-heart-part, and the part where you climb the stairs to City Grocery—where many writers, including my husband, have a brass plaque engraved with their name and drink of choice--and the bartenders set your drink before you without you having to say a word.
Cheers, Elliot and Coonie.
Some of you reading this will think, Oh, but I could never live in Mississippi! Well, good. Don’t. No offense, but we don’t want you. Our town has its problems, the main one (besides the Confederate statue) being rapid growth. Oxford has been on several “best of” lists in the last two decades, and in 2021 was named ESPN’s “Best College Town.” Which, friends, kinda ruins a town.
Others of you will think, Oh, but I could never live in a small town! That’s also hunky dory. But your stance may be worth evaluating. I humbly submit: according to The Washington Post, “People who live in small towns and rural areas are happier than everyone else.” The conclusion was reached after “a massive new data set in Canada” that cross-referenced the Canadian census with 400,000 responses to a survey gauging well-being. This cross-referencing allowed the analysts for the first time “to see what sorts of characteristics were associated with happiness at the community level: Are happier communities richer, for instance? Are the people there more educated?”
The main take-away was a shocker: “Life is significantly less happy in urban areas.”
A few more facts that jumped out: people in the happiest communities have shorter commute times, less expensive housing, higher church attendance, and are more likely to feel a “sense of belonging.”
Welcome to Oxford, bitches.
Or don’t take my word for it. Take Rob’s. He says that when he arrived from Arizona to visit his friends Dave and Allison who’d just moved to Oxford, he wasn’t planning on painting Oxford nudes. He was simply cogitating on painting nudes. Maybe in France, where he had a connection to a naturalist community in Brittany. It probably wouldn’t be hard to talk people into being photographed in the buff when they already drove, gardened, shopped, rode bicycles, and ate escargot in the buff. Bonus: while photographing in France, he’d get to be in France.
But something happened when Rob arrived in Oxford. He puts it simply: “I fell in love.” Though doing so made his task a good bit more challenging. He had to—literally—charm the pants off us.
That Rob’s career trajectory would evolve to painting nudes would surprise anyone familiar only with his early work, which, according to the Sullivan Goss Gallery, features “highly finished images of the icons of an American Pop mythology.” The objects he elevates from bygone eras, often closely cropped--classic cars, bottle caps, matchbooks—produce “a vision of America’s material culture that vacillates between nostalgia for what is lost and optimism for the continuation of American ingenuity.” These objects are celebrated quite separately from their human usefulness—there is no elbow propped in the window of the Dodge Dart, no fingers rifling the vintage travel brochures, no fork puncturing the sunny wedge of lemon meringue pie. These objects are not besmirched by flesh or function.
Rob, I’m guessing, would have had buyer demand for these astonishing feats of photorealism until he hung up his palette. His ice cream cones, lollipops, and donuts look so real it’s hard not to reach for them. Grouped in multiples, they recall the cakes of Wayne Theibaud, a painter Rob admires. They light up our prehistoric lizard brains—Want, we think when we see these paintings. I want. Each painting, a dopamine hit, all of the frosting and none of the love handles.
But one fateful day, Rob’s path took a sharp right, courtesy of some vintage slides he ordered off eBay. These two-inch squares were windows through which the bonny ray of sunshine named Helen found ingress. He tells the story in My Indiana Muse, so I’ll do no more than summarize, because everyone should treat themselves and watch the documentary. Briefly: he became enamored of the mystery woman who appeared in the slides, and not because she was some ravishing vixen—she was middle age-ish, shortish, stoutish. Her superpower? She radiates joy. She wears her dark hair teased high, cat’s eye glasses, and brightly patterned 60s outfits with matching accessories. There is no self-consciousness in her poses, or in her knockout, crooked smile. She thoroughly inhabits herself, and her pleasure in her existence is so radically unquestioned that we don’t question it, either. Here’s a slide in which she reclines on the lip of a pool in a mod print dress, a mid-century hotel behind her; here she leans against a vintage car at the beach, the flower tucked behind her ear matching her Hawaiian shirt; here she and friends toast martini glasses. Often she’s posing with the same man, sometimes in coordinating pink plaid, and Rob rightly guessed him to be her husband. But whether linking elbows with her husband or her gal pals, that same life-loving woman steals our gaze.
Rob began painting her, which made him more determined to learn about her. His breakthrough came when he found a slide in which she wears a name tag: Helen. What follows is a sweetly unfolding love story. Though Helen died before Rob met her, his affection for her grew as he painted her, even recreating her travel in order to visit the landmarks where she posed. Rob located her surviving family members, nieces who were only too glad to see their beloved aunt celebrated in all of her technicolor glory. At a gallery opening on Helen’s birthday, Rob and the nieces—part Helen fan club, part ersatz family—got Helen a birthday cake and shared it with the gallery’s patrons.
Rob painted Helen exclusively for the next eight years—she’s the “muse” of My Indiana Muse. His very large, highly detailed, labor-intensive oils recreate Helen’s vacation photos, down to the scree that covers the desert slope behind Helen’s strappy sandals—small, pebbled scree that took him thirteen days to paint.
Doubtlessly Rob could have painted Helen for the rest of the career. He had enough slides. He had enough buyers. Who doesn’t need a little Helen in their life?
But after several years, he noticed two things.
First, when painting Helen he was “playing one note on the piano, a joyful, lighthearted note, a note I loved playing.” Nevertheless, it was only one note. Rob’s a philosophical person with a serious side. You don’t have to converse with him long before you find yourself discussing the big questions, like who we are and what we’re doing here on earth. Maybe that’s why he was so drawn to Helen, now that I think if it; her effervescence balances his gravitas.
He began considering what other notes he wanted to play.
At the same time, he noticed that, while he still enjoyed painting Helen, the locus of his most intense enjoyment had shifted. Initially, because he’d come to Helen from his pop art that had elevated colorful, humble items from past eras, he loved to paint her white kitten heels and long beaded necklaces, loved her chosen backgrounds of big-finned cars and mid-century facades. But, several years in, Rob found himself happier when painting her wrist than her wristwatch. Happier painting her hand than her handbag. Happier painting her neck than her necklace. Happiest of all when painting her face: “When we see faces,” he’d tell me later, “we’re hardwired to feel a deeper connection.” If he got rid of everything extraneous in a painting, he wondered, would he feel a corresponding deepening of emotional connection? The body, he realized, was where he was headed. The body would allow him to investigate the philosophical question that drives him: what makes us human?
But before I knew all that, all I knew was my husband and I were going to a dinner party. Our old friends, John T. and Blair, were hosting a bunch of us. Our new friends, Dave and Alison, art lovers who’d recently moved here from Arizona, were coming and bringing their artist friend who was visiting.
I googled the artist as Tommy drove us across town, a six-minute drive, instantly smitten by the top hit, one of Rob’s Helens. “Damn,” I said, and showed Tommy at a stoplight, and “Damn,” he agreed.
It was a very, very good party. John T and Blair’s parties always are, lots of laughter and silliness, incredible food, a bunch of natural story tellers one-upping each other, more laughter, more food, a vintage coupe glass you never see the bottom of. They are artists, John T. and Blair; the former with words, the second with canvas. But I think they are also artists of the evening. Connoisseurs of the Cocktail hour. Guardians of the Gathering. I probably have experienced more bliss at their home than in any other besides my own. Their jewel-box residence is another of Blair’s canvases, never the same twice, a new arrangement of furniture or framed pieces hung on the deep blue-green walls (google “dragonfly”), the candlelit dinner table set with grandmothers’ china surrounding a taxidermied peacock wearing a tiny Santa hat, because, you know, why not.
Rob wasn’t one to elbow his way into the story-telling World Cup, but eventually we drew him out with questions. He told us about discovering Helen and the filming of My Indiana Muse. I liked his thoughtful approach and how he spoke about the honor of painting Helen.
How long was he staying in town, we wanted to know. What he was working on?
Something about that lively evening had made something in him decide something. “I’m here for a short visit now,” he said. “But I’m coming back next week, and sticking around for a bit.” Maybe testing it out, I’m not sure.
And, a little later, “I’m starting a series of nudes. I’m looking for models to photograph when I return to town. If you know of anyone. . .”
At the evening’s end, he handed out business cards. I took one. By that point, I hadn’t seen the bottom of my vintage coupe glass in a very long time.
The next morning, when the sober light of Sunday pierced my blinds, I picked up my discarded dress from the floor, shook it out, and found, in a lumpy pocket, the creased business card.
I tossed it in the garbage as we headed out to church.
Is Oxford special, or is it merely special to me because it belongs to me?
Oxford is a lemonade booster town. And a sophisticated Lemonadograph triangulating the optimal location would crosshair our corner. All three of my kids have made killings out there. My daughter, the oldest, started, only charging a nickel a glass. A nickel can’t buy the cup, can’t buy the mix. No matter. Not one customer ever gave her only a nickel, ever. They’d clean out their purses. They’d overdraw their accounts. Often we find a $20 bill in the kids’ shoebox—400 times the asking price. Now it’s my youngest’s turn, and I like to shoo him out there on football Saturdays, hissing, Mama wants shoes! Kidding. Kinda.
Customers of all ages, all races, all occupations wait patiently in line, sometimes cars idling four or five deep at the curb. Once, a police car pulled over. To disperse traffic? To demand a business permit? Two officers strolled over to the perp, bought two cups, tipped $9.90, and pretended to drink the too-sweet concoction as they walked back to their patrol car. Driving away, they even flicked on their cherry lights, catapulting my son into ecstasy and distracting him from noticing the two wet circles on the asphalt where the lemonade had been poured out.
Another time, I was walking outside with a fresh pitcher when I saw my daughter, in salesperson mode, flagging down a funeral procession—we live close to St. Peter’s Cemetery. I sprang to muzzle her when a gray head yelled out the window, “We’ll be back!” Ninety minutes later, three septuagenarians in black were double fisting lemonade. It must have been powerful medicine.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. It certainly takes one to raise a lemonade entrepreneur, and the villagers of Oxford take their job seriously.
WHY I (EVENTUALLY) POSED
1. I like art. I think there should be more of it.
2. I like Rob. I like Rob, and I like his work, and his vision for his work. After that dinner, he sent me a link to My Indiana Muse. When we see Helen through Rob’s eyes, we all develop crushes on her. But he’s the one who first noticed her, he’s the one who first recognized her lovability. That’s a tremendous act of perception.
3. Rob expressed a wish for imperfect bodies. He said normally the people eager to pose are twenty and physically perfect. But perfection, Rob said, is boring.
4. Well now, I happen to have an imperfect body. It’s right here, under my dress. And if I rail against an ethos that obsesses over youth—if I detest the cultural pressure to lift, plump, tuck, and inject—if I reject the mandate to needle botulism between my brows to erase the evidence that I’ve dared to commit a thought—if I believe that one way we could reduce this pressure to conform to an impossible ideal would be to see bodies of all shapes, sizes, colors, and levels of ability represented without shame, should I not then offer the one imperfect body that’s mine to offer? If I hate that middle age women are looked through, should I not then offer one to be looked at? (I dare you to look through my portrait, by the way. First, I’m seven feet tall. Second, I’m framed in fluorescent pink).
5. The year prior, turning 50 in the darkest depth of the pandemic, I pledged that if the pandemic ever ended, I would say YES to things that scare me. Reach deep into the Fuck It Bucket. “No regerts,” as my son Sharpied on his arm when he was eight, to show me the tattoo he planned on getting as soon as he was legal.
“The nude,” Rob would tell me on the phone later, when I’d already been painted and the series was well underway, “is the most honest version of the most important subject.”
Honesty centers his approach. His nudes aren’t sensualized, aren’t glamorized. Rob’s women are not posed like Raphael’s The Three Graces, curvy beauties with weight shifted onto one leg so the other can draw in softly, emphasizing the hips, the sinuous lines. No, we are not posed like Three Graces as painted by Raphael, nor like the Three Graces as painted by Paul Rubens, nor Charles-Andre van Loo, nor Jan Brueghel the Elder and Frans Wouter, paintings that prompted Hannah Gadsby in her Netflix special, Douglas, to quip that “Dancing naked in groups of three in the forest is the number one hobby of women of all time.” Later she’ll add that the number two hobby of women is being chained to rocks.
No, not the Three Graces. We are graceless, and alone.
Or all of those who’d already posed before me but Alison, the first to pose, were alone. She’d posed, laughing, with her BFF. I figured maybe that was her prerogative for allowing these shoots to happen at her house in the first place, as well as having to angle the dang light reflector on the rest of us nekkid folks. But now that I’ve seen their double portrait, I think that her beautiful friend, whom I don’t know, must have appreciated having a hand to squeeze as she bared her double mastectomy.
Unlike Alison and her friend, I was squared toward the camera. Rob wouldn’t even let me hide behind my hair. No YouTube tutorial called “How to Look Sexy in Photos!!” could help me now. No angle-your-foot-to-lengthen-your leg. No visual Spanx. No filters. Most nudes are positioned in poses that feel avoidant, Rob explained, and in diffused light, which rids them of sunspots, moles, and wrinkles. Rob desired “warts and all,” and got his desire with my Irish skin’s sun-freckled forearms: proof of life.
Larger than life, actually. The portraits are larger than life. Rob wanted, he said, a mirrored effect: whoever confronts the portrait is confronted. The viewers are compelled to see themselves in the other.
“You can’t force people to have compassion,” he would tell me. “But we should be able to see ourselves in any other person, in any gender or age or body.” He paused, selecting his words with care. “I think for me, painting nudes is an exercise in increasing empathy.”
Maybe that has something to do with my reaction upon first viewing my portrait, which pinged into my in-box as an email attachment from Rob, the subject heading, “finished painting,” causing me to die a little.
Waited for the image to load, I proceeded with my dying.
I had anticipated that seeing my portrait would incite a harsh confrontation of my flaws. What surprised me is that, while a certain amount of critique did occur, it wasn’t my primary reaction. Critique occurred, sure, but only later.
My primary reaction was awe.
What sorcery is this, what magic trick, to flatten a three-dimensional woman onto a canvas and, with only pigments and linseed oil, make her look exactly like herself?
Like, 100% exactly.
I’m trying to recreate my sonic boom upon seeing the portrait. To put it simply: I think first I recognized myself, and then I recognized my humanity.
Look at my bunions, I remember thinking with a giddy delight.
My feet are ugly with an ugliness I’ve earned honestly, from years of running, and earned less honestly, from years of wearing high heels.
When we use poses, filters, and diffused light to correct, distract, or erase, we’re complicit in the lie of perfection while also cognizant of failing to meet the criteria we’re reinforcing.
Rob, through his refusal to correct, distract, or erase my imperfections, dignified them.
Through his attention, he dignified them.
I think I experienced the empathy Rob spoke of. Empathy for the human. Empathy for the bunion.
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
Each Christmas, we decorate our yard, like many do here. Because it’s a small town, you become familiar with each house’s displays, and you anticipating your favorites starting the day after Thanksgiving (but hopefully not before: tacky). My yard boasts what several Oxonians claim is their favorite decoration: five light-up Star Wars characters, each 4-foot high, decked out for Christmas. We ordered them, a set, many years ago and have never seen another, though we’ve looked.
Each year, we arrange the band in a semi-circle: R2D2 and C3PO on the right, a Storm Trooper and Yoda on the left, and in the center, Darth Vader, our family favorite because Vader’s so dang adorable stiff-arming a red-wrapped Christmas gift.
But one dark night the unthinkable occurred.
Though we heard no commotion, the blue light of dawn revealed a Vader-sized gap in the universe.
I posted on Facebook a photo of the remaining four figures with the caption, “Some asshat stole Vader.”
The town leapt into mourning. The death of Queen Elizabeth didn’t occasion as many nostalgic tributes. Mothers who told me that they’d always made special trips to take their kids past our house on the way to karate now chose alternate routes out of despair.
Then one night, after dinner, the phone rang. It was Jason Bouldin, a visual artist who goes to our church. We like him but don’t know him well. He must have had to call around to get our number.
Jason apologized for calling late. He was out walking his dog. And he thought we might want to know: he standing, at that very moment, on the sidewalk in front of a frat house. A frat house that had, on its steps, a face-down Vader.
Our Vader. We knew it. First, those figures are sold in a set of five. Second, I felt his force calling me. He wanted to come home.
But I didn’t relish arguing with the frat boys. Maybe they’d been drinking. Luckily, we’d also been drinking. It was closing in on midnight when we decided, Fuck it. We would liberate The Fallen One.
Tommy screeched the getaway car up to the frat house curb and I sprinted up those steps like Usain Bolt, lunge-grabbed The Dark Lord to my chest and sprinted back to the car before diving into the open back seat while shouting “Go! Go! Go!” as Tommy peeled around the corner on two squealing rims.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that dramatic.
But order was restored to the universe. Vader resumed his rightful spot on our corner. And the mamas drove their babies by our house again, and Oxford had a Christmas of peace and tranquility.
Here’s something I’m wondering. Would the portraits read differently if the subjects were professional artist models? If we’d answered an ad Rob had posted on Craig’s List? If we’d posed because we got paid?
Does our startling vulnerability show, does it make any blooming difference?
We did get paid, though I didn’t know that in advance, and if I had known, it would only have made me less likely to pose.
We’d agreed on a time for the photo shoot, which would be at Dave and Alison’s house, a mid-day on a Tuesday between the classes I teach at the University. When I pulled into Dave and Alison’s driveway, I could see a kind of giant lightbox had been erected on the lawn. Because Rob wanted to shoot outside, using natural light, but also wanted privacy for the model, they’d built a wooden frame and wrapped panels of white fabric around its sides, leaving the top open to the sun. A sign in the grass diverted UPS drivers to a side door—a considerate gesture, I thought as I walked up, ensuring the models aren’t alarmed by some brown-shirted dude requiring a signature.
Inside the house, we chatted—me nervously—and then Rob explained the pose he wanted: standing, facing his camera straight-on, unsmiling. Then Alison led me to the large, elegant bathroom where a fluffy white terrycloth robe was folded, its sash still belted around it, revealing it had been newly purchased. I stripped quickly, avoiding the mirror’s seductive invitation to chicken out. I cinched the robe and they led me outside to the white sheeted enclosure. The only furniture was a standing coat rack on which to hang my robe, a rack much too thin to hide behind. Rob lifted his camera.
Whenever you’re ready.
I undid the stash, slipped out of the robe, hung it on the hook, and turned around.
My grammar school teacher Ms. Naylon detested inaccuracies of language. Absolute states of matter, she asserted, are absolute. Water couldn’t be “very boiling” or “very freezing,” a woman couldn’t be “very pregnant,” a bug couldn’t be “very dead.” I’m sorry, Ms. Naylon, but standing there under the brightest possible mid-day Mississippi sun, I was not naked, I was very, very naked. There was nothing to do with my hands. Rob’s shutter clicked, him occasionally advising Alison on how to angle the light reflector to bounce the sun on me, though the sun itself was doing a good job, making me squint into the lens, which I understood ruefully would deepen my laugh lines.
Then it was over, and in less than ten minutes. I slipped back into my robe and was led back inside and reentered the bathroom and re-donned my teaching dress. When I came out, Rob and Alison were in the kitchen. I was offered coffee and we chatted a bit about weekend plans (me, nervously) and Rob then took out a copy of my latest book and said some nice things about it and asked me to inscribe it to him. As I did, I thought—how nice. How nice of him to read my book. He didn’t have to, but his doing so makes our exchange less transactional, more artist-to-artist.
That’s when he said there was a check on the counter for $300.
I make bad jokes when I’m nervous. “Why don’t you just leave it on my nightstand like the other men I strip for?” I asked.
Rob has a large, open face, a large, open brow, and a look flickered across it: a look of hurt.
All the work he’d done to ensure we felt safe and respected: he’d arranged the photo sessions not to overlap to protect models’ privacy and built the sheeted enclosure and diverted the UPS driver and purchased new bath robes and kept Alison with us at all times, he’d done all of that and he’d read my book to boot, and I had to go and make a stupid joke. I had to go and sully it.
But I still drove away abuzz in a kind of euphoria or adrenaline or something. I had done it, this thing I wasn’t sure I could do. Returning to campus to teach, I took a wrong turn, though I knew the way. That’s how keyed up I was. I parked in the same spot I’d left not an hour earlier, surprised it was still there, as though the world hadn’t shifted a smidge.
Does it appear I’m making too much of posing nude? Younger generations would think so: BFD. But I came of age before the internet, which means before porn was in your pocket, before naked selfies and that charming courting gesture called the dick pic. To which I say: Thank you, sweet baby Jesus.
My children had a wonderful babysitter, now graduated and gone, but for four years she helped us out. Erica’s nice college boyfriend once told my husband that guys his in fraternity have never seen a woman with pubic hair. That’s how much the internet has shaped young people’s sexuality. In porn, apparently, the male ejaculation needs to be captured on camera, and the visuals are more dramatic if the female porn star is hair-free. And because young men got used to seeing hairless female genitalia as normal, women began waxing in order to meet this standard, a standard begot by the porn industry for the money shot.
Sometimes it’s so nice to be irrelevant.
Yes, I know about professional artists’ models, muses like Jane Avril and Dora Maar. But neither Avril nor Maar lived in the Bible Belt. Where I live, you can get reprimanded for cursing during pickleball.
Rob has offered me an artist’s print of my portrait on some kind of fancy paper, which is very kind—I hadn’t known that would be part of the deal. I want it, but I have no idea what I’ll do with it. I certainly can’t hang it. My sons would pack up their Legos and Nerf guns and run away from home.
On second thought, maybe I will hang it.
As for the original portrait being out in the world, I take comfort both from its size and its price, which insure it won’t be centered over my ex-boyfriend’s couch any time soon (eat your heart out, Colin). Apparently, I can bear strangers in Berlin or Stockholm seeing the portrait and saying, “That’s art.” Can’t bear some nineteen-year-old seeing the same and saying, “Dude, that’s my English professor.”
I told you earlier that anyone walking into a gallery or museum showing Rob’s nudes wouldn’t see the web between us, wouldn’t understand us as linked. We present as random, unrelated people, no more linked than, say, trees in a forest.
But trees are linked. Long misunderstood to be self-contained loners competing for sunlight and water, science now confirms the truth we knew as children. Trees communicate. They form alliances, even across species.
Beneath our feet, trees are connected by fungal networks through which they share water and nutrients. The biggest and oldest trees with the most fungal connections have the deepest roots and use them to draw water up, up, up, water that they share with shallow-rooted saplings. Using their hairlike root tips, trees send signals of alarm when parched from drought or attacked by insects, and other trees react to these signals. When a tree sends out signals of distress, a neighbor tree can pump sugar into its roots. Trees have evolved to help each other, because trees live longer and reproduce more in a healthy, stable forest.
In the U.S., the region with the highest percentage of homes with front porches is the South East—86%. I imagine Oxford’s percentage is even higher. From our front porches—the original neighborhood watch—we notice when a neighboring family brings home a baby or suffers an illness and needs the succor of a broccoli casserole whiskered with French fried onions.
There are more and more houses here being used solely as weekend Airbnb rentals, and more and more rich alumni buying second homes used solely for football games, seven weekends a year. Each one of those houses tears a hole in the fabric, and when there are too many holes, the fabric will tear. Neighborhoods won’t function as neighborhoods any more. Front porches will become decorative, a place to show off your mums.
Maybe that’s the other reason I’m writing this. To sing of the beauty of my beloved tapestry, to sing even as I mourn the snick, snick snick—the sound of threads popping.
The curse of being a professor is that, if I do my job well, eventually I’m superfluous. Each spring my students flood out into the world and I stay put. Hating this next fact doesn’t make it less true: about 99% of them won’t stay in touch. I will wonder after them for years, especially if I’ve taught them creative writing, because when people show you their poetry or memoir, you learn their secrets.
Sometimes you come across a student you can’t let gallop off into the sunset. Such was the case with Molly McCully Brown, who studied poetry with me in our graduate MFA Program. Molly was young when she first visited our program—so young in fact she couldn’t legally drink with the other grad students after workshop. She’d graduated college early, and she was wiser than any twenty-year-old I’d ever met. Than any forty-year old. The fact that Molly has cerebral palsy might have something to do with her old soul--she’s spent a lot of time in pain. Anyway, we were ready for each other when we met, and we transitioned from mentor-student to friend-friend. And so we’ve remained.
This summer, Molly came for a visit, and one night after dinner, we were talking on the porch. My laptop was within reach. I slowly dragged it close, making a decision: “I have something to show you.”
I hadn’t shown anyone beyond my husband the photo Rob had emailed. Why not? I think I felt an urge to protect the purity of an experience that would evaporate as soon as it was exposed to air. Rather like the time that comes after I’ve written a poem and before I’ve sent it out for publication. A private time, free from adjudication. When the poem is published, it belongs to the reader to love or hate or misinterpret. It belongs to the reader, which is the dream of art. But before it belongs to the reader, it’s mine in a way it will never be again.
As with the portrait: Rob will hang the seven-foot-tall me on a wall, and when he does, I’ll belong to the viewer. And there will come a time after that when someone will buy it. But before that, when the portrait is simply in Rob’s studio and on my laptop, it’s my secret to spill.
In silence Molly and I studied the image, the cicadas outside seeming loud. I think Molly said something like “Wow.” I lowered my pinched fingers to the touchpad—I couldn’t help myself—American culture has schooled me well—and drew them outward to enlarge my belly. Together we studied that soft, poochy skin around my navel, a few shadowed crescents underscoring the stretched skin.
“Well,” I sighed at last, “it’s the stomach of a fifty-one-year-old woman who’s had three kids.”
“Yes. Yes it is,” said Molly, but with a tone quite unlike mine—not of resignation but of affirmation. “It’s the stomach of a fifty-one-year-old woman who’s had three kids.”
And then we turned from the laptop toward each other and kinda smiled.
See, I told you she was wise.
For why should I wish to appear otherwise? Nothing in my life has transformed me as much as becoming a mother. Why wouldn’t I want my exterior to show signs of this interior transformation? Why would I think—why would I hope—I could erase the evidence?
Fun fact: the child most responsible for my stretched tummy skin is my middle child. He came out two weeks late and ten pounds fat, a monster who nearly killed me here in this very same house where I’m writing these words, a homebirth eighteen years ago that landed me in the ER, unconscious and hemorrhaging. (In case you’re wondering, I’ve forgiven him). The wonderful woman who was my doula that long day’s night eighteen years ago would become, I’d later discover, another of the Oxford 12.
It was I think the next day when it occurred to me that Molly should pose for Rob. Though graduated and gone from Oxford, she claims it as a soul-home, and Oxford is sticky. It clings to those who pass through. One of the town’s nicknames is the “Velvet Ditch,” indicating that Oxford’s stickiness has a bit of danger. Like one of those couches that’s so comfortable that if you sit on it at the party you accept you’re not mingling anytime soon. Sometimes, at an Oxford restaurant, you look up to realize two Ph.D.s are bussing your table. The velvet ditch is thick with tall poppies.
Is Oxford special, or is it merely special to me because it belongs to me?
Like certain rich alumni, my husband and I also own two properties.
First, our house, the one where eighteen years ago the middle child tried to kill me.
Second, our five plots in St. Peter’s Cemetery, down the hill from Faulkner.
Newer cemeteries tend to be built on cheaper land on the outskirts of a town, but St. Peter’s lies in the heart of Oxford, a reminder that, as one of my first-year students once opined in a paper, “Death is an important event in everyone’s life.” Even now many Oxonians share names with the leaning, moss-darkened stones. Not my family; I was raised outside Chicago, Tommy in Alabama.
But even before I owned a plot there, I took an owner’s interest in the “cedar-bemused” cemetery, as Faulkner described it, probably because we live close enough that sometimes storms blow plastic bouquets onto our lawn. When I go running, I often wind my way through the cemetery’s quiet hills, past the circle of cedars, past the grave of the Revolutionary War hero, past Col. Falkner’s obelisk, and over to the grave of his great-grandson, the Nobel Laureate. It comforts me to know that pilgrims still pay homage to this artist whose words outlive him. I peer at the graveside offerings, flowers and flags and pens and pennies, stones and notes and always always liquor bottles, as the tradition is to take a swig and then offer one to Mr. Bill. Certain literary gatherings—the Oxford Conference for the Book is one—don’t seem complete until a late night ends with a circle of writers at his grave passing brown liquor. One time, a few years back, I found on his grave a clump of Mardi Gras beads and paper kazoos and a “Happy 21 st Birthday” hat. Say what you want about “The Little Easy,” another nickname for Oxford. People here still read. I want to set my weight down in a place where the passage to adulthood is marked with a midnight toast to Mr. Bill.
The plots my family purchased are in the less-desirable lowlands, the newer part, near a paved roundabout, but because we are five, we couldn’t be choosy. I thought it’d make for a funny Christmas card, all of us lying down on our plots, but my mother was scandalized and refused to take the photo. She felt I was being unduly morbid. I feel I’m being duly morbid. We all have to go sometime. When it’s my turn—hopefully, many decades hence—I know where I’ll be.
Say you happened to find yourself strolling through a cemetery past tombstones with the following names: Alison Anderson, Vicki Beaudoin, Joe Stinchcomb, Beth Ann Fennelly, Terry Moon, Taariq David, Allison Doyle, Amy Webb, Jonathan Kent Adams, Blake Summers, and Molly McCully Brown. You’d have no reason to assume those names are connected.
But we are. Like the trees that seem solitary but are connected below the earth, we’re kin. Even if we circled the square our whole lives and never quite crossed paths, we’re kin.
Remember Rob’s question: What makes us human?
One answer is: We make each other human. Our relationships, our webs, our love and our lemonade, the conversation at the bookstore, the flirting with the bartender, the neighbor kids whose names you know, the runners whose gaits you recognize, the house every kid loves because it gives out the full-size Herseys at Halloween, the house every parent loves because it gives out toothbrushes, the churchgoer who tips you off to your stolen Vader, the mamas who toot their horn to welcome Vader home, all of it invisible but weaving us together.
Maybe that’s why we posed. Because community is always morphing and shifting, there are always people entering and departing and birthing and dying and graduating and moving away. Yet the place continues. This little postage stamp of native soil goes on. And one day, it will be our turn to leave. We will go to the cemetery and lie down. We will pull up the sod around us like a comforter.
What makes us human? Radical rooted reckless elastic ecstatic commitment to love, which is a phrase I emailed Rob when he asked for words to paint in the background of one of the portraits.
We were here, we Oxford 12, separately and together. To prove it, we went on the record. For this one bright brief moment on planet earth, framed in fluorescent pink, we were here.
Dear viewer of my naked body,
Enjoy the bunions.