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by Raymond Luczak


after John Everett Millais’s painting


Her river to immortality

started in a bathtub. In 1851,

Elizabeth Siddal, all of 19,

floated in the bathtub

for hours on end

while having her dress,

her body, her face carefully

rendered on the canvas

in front of her. Mr. Millais

had spent months denoting

every color, every shade

of a grassy spot

shimmering off Hogsmill River.

Satisfied, he reread how Ophelia,

having gone mad

upon her father’s death,

crazy with love for Hamlet,

bitter for never getting

anything she wanted out of life,

chose to collapse asleep

in a river, hovering

between the green lips

before being swallowed

whole. Miss Siddal’s dress

was festooned with all

the virtues of pastel blue.

As instructed, she held

up her hands, flowers

left astray around her.

She kept her eyes half-lidded

with life and dream.

Each day was the same.

Soon it was winter.

Mr. Millais left oil lamps

under the tub to keep the water

warm. He got so lost

in the drama of executing

a perfect brush stroke—

the right angle, the perfect amount

of pressure against canvas—

that he forgot all about her

when the water turned cold.

She nearly died. At 32,

when she finally did die

of laudanum, she’d endured

miscarriage, depression,

and the many betrayals

by another painter she’d married

(Dante Gabriel Rossetti,

if you must know).

No one remembers this fact

when strangers like us

gaze upon her face forever

beatified in oil, beseeching

salvation from the fire below.