Poem by Jennifer Jean
Manao Tupapau at the ArtSpeak Exhibit and Fund-raiser
"Could it be, then, that we are the spirit of the dead watching? The Tahitian language certainly allows for such ambiguities. The expression, manao tupapau, means either watching the spirit of the dead or the spirit of the dead watching." — Ben Pollitt
There’s this one work.
You’re meant to face this clean mirror.
Let its embedded, frosted bar code
obscure your features—
make you: For Sale.
And it’s popular! A throng
in, intones, “There
but for the grace of God....” I go
out of the frame—quick—
and think at the next
work of art.
prepped for the exhibit
at a long table in their safe house.
And, as their teacher, I
gifted my book—The Archivist—
laid out copies like place mats.
plucked it up, turned it over, hid it
in a purse or pocket. I
said, “Write what you
want.” So, they wrote wings
and strength and pride and
stuff I wouldn’t dare
touch. They wrote
in present tense.
The safe-house ladies
wanted famed Gauguin
his Spirit of the Dead Watching
to sell our little fold-and-staple
On Our Way to a Miracle.
His bright oil on burlap, his
Tehura as our cover,
and the little money
poetry can raise.
Those ladies saw a power-
in his foreground—a belly-down nude
a white bed and watching out
of the frame. They said she’s inviting, wanting
the hoodied man
on the edge
of the mattress.
“There’s no man in this picture,”
I said, because I’d read
about the painter and his lurking
ghost crone. “No, no, no,” said C,
“this dude cannot paint
critics say the nude’s gaze is fearful of
old Gauguin said Tehura feared the dead and
one of a series of “frightened Eves”
ignored the artist—
Tehura was wife or girlfriend
“She’s not scared,” said J, “she’s
J wrote five poems that class—J wrote and wrote
from her pimp
or boyfriend or what-
ever she called him.
Before ArtSpeak, Tehura’s glare
made the cover
the sampler version.
The real cover
became a shot of an iron-blue butterfly
the ladies rescued from
The real cover was gently
by a safe-
In the meantime, I was deadly
the girl with crossed ankles, his
oil on burlap—I bought their poems
that way. With his sheen painted on
her ass. I took in Gauguin’s gorgeous
fear, and I
- Opening quote: "Paul Gauguin, Spirit of the Dead Watching" by Ben Pollit, Khan Academy, 2015.
- Noa Noa: The Tahitian Journal by Paul Gauguin, translated by O.F. Theis, originally published in 1919 (Dover Publications, 1985).
- Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life by Nancy Mowll Mathews (Yale University Press, 2001).
- Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) by Paul Gauguin (1892); public domain.
Jennifer Jean is managing editor of Talking Writing. Her debut poetry collection is The Fool (Big Table, 2013), and her poetry chapbooks include The Archivist (Big Table, 2011) and In the War (Big Table, 2010). She is the recipient of the 2016 Good Bones Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Rattle, Waxwing, Tidal Basin, Denver Quarterly, Mud City Journal, Green Mountains Review, and more.
She is also poetry editor of the Mom Egg Review and co-director of Morning Garden Artist Retreats. Jennifer teaches Free2Write poetry workshops to sex-trafficking survivors. For more information, visit her website Fish Wife Tales or follow her on Twitter @fishwifetales.
Of the event that inspired this poem, Jennifer says:
It refers to the first Free2Write poetry workshop I taught in 2014 at Amirah, a safe house for sex-trafficking survivors (that is, survivors of modern-day slavery). When the workshop ended, I gathered some of the survivors’ poems into a chapbook, which was then sold at an ArtSpeak Fund-raiser organized by Highrock Church in Salem, Massachusetts. Several survivors bravely read their poetry to a crowd of over a hundred attendees.