Poet's Choice: 'Nude Asleep in the Tub' by Wayne Miller

By Wayne Miller
Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Nude Asleep in the Tub" began when I attended an exhibition -- I believe at the MoMA in 1998 -- of Pierre Bonnard's beautiful paintings of interior domestic scenes, many of which are of his wife bathing. I had just moved to New York, shortly after finishing college, and what struck me about the work was Bonnard's ability to create the illusion of flickering light within a static canvas. Over the following two years, I attempted several versions of a poem about a woman in a bathtub, all of which failed miserably.

I picked up the poem -- or the idea for the poem -- again in 2005, when I'd been living with my girlfriend for a couple years in Kansas City. Now that I had lived with someone for more than a very short while, I discovered I had come to understand more fully what those Bonnard paintings were about: that moment when one's beloved withdraws inward to attend to her interior life, even though you are present in the room. It's in such moments that a relationship can, paradoxically, feel most intimately entangled -- the beloved suddenly recaptures that glow of mystery and distance a regular life together erodes; at the same time, she exudes a level of comfort and intimacy that is only possible after a period of living together.

As is often the subject of poetry, it also struck me how briefly such moments last.

(Editor's note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.)

Nude Asleep in the Tub

As if she were something opened --

like a pocket watch -- her body


slipped beneath a surface

peeled back to reveal its surface --


drops of air clinging to her thighs

like roe. Outside, the snow


pressed down against the city's

rooftops; a frozen shirt


on the clothesline hung slack,

no longer cracked and whipped


by the wind. And the window

just a slide of silence -- its slip


into evening measured

in drips from the tap. I found


I was alone with her body --

refracted and clarified -- water


breathing with her breath.

What could I do but watch


the lightwebs lambently drift

along the walls? -- as if


the room's edges radiated

from her, as if I were inside


her thought. But then,

even before this could register,


the clothesline creaked

and the wind picked up,


and she stirred, so the water

broke from her into water.

"Nude Asleep in the Tub" appears in Wayne Miller's second book of poems, "The Book of Props" (Milkweed, 2009). He edits Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.

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