Poetry Analysis: Black Swan by Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Portrait of a Child by Corey Marks
Note from the author: I wrote this piece back in 2010 as part of a college assignment. My professor asked us to write an analysis of Black Swan by Brigit Pegeen Kelly vs Portrait of a Child by Corey Marks. It was an open-ended assignment that could be taken many different ways. Twelve years later, in 2022, I rediscovered my analysis on the two poems, and decided to rescue it from my archives.
Black Swan by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
I told the boy I found him under a bush. What was the harm? I told him he was sleeping And that a black swan slept beside him, The swan’s feathers hot, the scent of the hot feathers And of the bush’s hot white flowers As rank and sweet as the stewed milk of a goat. The bush was in a strange garden, a place So old it seemed to exist outside of time. In one spot, great stone steps leading nowhere. In another, statues of horsemen posting giant stone horses Along a high wall. And here, were triangular beds Of flowers flush with red flowers. And there, Circular beds flush with white. And in every bush And bed flew small birds and the cries of small birds. I told the boy I looked for him a long time And when I found him I watched him sleeping, His arm around the swan’s moist neck, The swan’s head tucked fast behind the boy’s back, The feathered breast and the bare breast breathing as one, And then very swiftly and without making a sound, So that I would not wake the sleeping bird, I picked the boy up and slipped him into my belly, The way one might slip something stolen Into a purse. And brought him here.... And so it was. And so it was. A child with skin So white it was not like the skin of a boy at all, But like the skin of a newborn rabbit, or like the skin Of a lily, pulseless and thin. And a giant bird With burning feathers. And beyond them both A pond of incredible blackness, overarched With ancient trees and patterned with shifting shades, The small wind in the branches making a sound Like the knocking of a thousand wooden bells.... Things of such beauty. But still I might Have forgotten, had not the boy, who stands now To my waist, his hair a cap of shining feathers, Come to me today weeping because some older boys Had taunted him and torn his new coat, Had he not, when I bent my head to his head, Said softly, but with great anger, “I wish I had never Been born. I wish I were back under the bush,” Which made the old garden rise up again, Shadowed and more strange. Small birds Running fast and the grapple of chill coming on. There was the pond, half-circled with trees. And there The flowerless bush. But there was no swan. There was no black swan. And beneath The sound of the wind, I could hear, dark and low, The giant stone hooves of the horses, Striking and striking the hardening ground.
Portrait of a Child by Corey Marks
I think of wind that runs like a river along a river, and trees bending into themselves with a will for breaking, a will to break from the soil and leave the lap of the horsefield where death has laid its head, its fire-red curls. I think of the young painter who finds the body of a child, drowned in the river and cast on stones that rattle in the white hands of the water. At first, the painter thinks all the right things. He thinks of his infant son. But then he notices the child's beautiful blue lips like the blue rim of a bowl, and the wine of its blood spilled on a stone, and the dark loaves of its closed eyes resting on the table of its face, like the meal Christ rises over, sweeping his hands apart while around the table the Apostles all lean against each other, whispering, waiting, posing, even, for the thousands of painters not yet born, all but Judas, who looks away, who has already broken the heavy bread and chews the grain, not thinking of betrayal, of kissing sour wine from Christ's lips, but of walking in a narrow street and hearing the song of one bird that flew a hundred miles to rest in a tree and pull its meal from a tent of worms. The painter begins a portrait of the boy. For a long time he stands beside the river, the brushes in a jar near his hand, the sun turning lower in the sky, and after a while he doesn't look at the child on the stones but only at the boy lying in the soft bed of paint, the dead boy at the end of his brush. Then the boy by the water wakes and climbs from the stones to the riverbank. He walks to the painter and asks him, What are you painting? You, the painter says, But you're dead. No, the boys says, That boy is dead, and he points to the painting.
My analysis of the two poems
Art can take on many different forms, and it causes many different responses in its audience. Sometimes art is fantasy that stimulates our imaginations. Sometimes art is symbolic, causing us to think about deeper things. “Black Swan” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly and “Portrait of a Child” by Corey Marks are two poems that show a positive way of relating art to our lives, and a harmful way of doing so. Each poem contains an artist, a piece of art about a child, and the child subject himself, who must interpret and respond to the art. The responses of the children to the art about them are contrasting, with one healthy, and the other harmful.
“Black Swan” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly is from the point of view of a mother who has told her son that she found him sleeping in a beautiful garden with a black swan, and that she stole him in his sleep, “slipped him into [her] belly, the way one might slip something stolen into a purse.” After painting a detailed and extensive description of the sleeping boy, the fantastic theft, and the beauty of the garden, the poem slips forward in time to the near present. The mother says that she might have forgotten this story that she had told her son if he had not recently said in anger “I wish I had never been born. I wish I were back under the bush.” The poem concludes with the mother thinking back to the garden scene again. But now it is remembered in ominous tones, with disturbing imagery.
“Portrait of a Child” by Corey Marks begins with the visual of a strong wind like a river, bending the trees to the breaking point, until they wish to be torn from the soil and blown away. Then it introduces two characters: a dead child whose drowned body lies on the edge of a river, and a young painter who discovers the body. The painter looks at the body, and thinks first of his own young son, but then begins thinking of the biblical Last Supper as painted by thousands of painters through the years. Finally the painter begins creating a portrait of the child lying dead on the ground, and is so absorbed in his painting that he does not notice when the child gets up, apparently not dead at all. When the painter finally notices and expresses his surprise, the boy explains that he is not dead. Rather the boy in the painting is dead.
Each poem must first be interpreted individually to understand what it is trying to impart. In “Black Swan” the story of how the mother found the boy and “slipped him into her belly” can only be the story of how he was conceived. It seems safe to assume that this story is fiction and that the boy was conceived in the traditional manner, by intercourse, not stolen from beneath a bush. The question that arises, then, is why did the mother tell her son that she found him beneath a bush? Adults don’t usually want to explain sex to young children, so they instead make up some story about babies being brought by storks or something else along those lines. The mother’s story to her son is a lavish version of the stork story. The stork has been replaced by a black swan, elaborately depicted scenery, and a fantastic sounding theft. The mother may have told her son this unusual story to make him feel special and unique. The child believed and still believes this story. This is evident by the fact that he says “I wish I had never been born. I wish I were back under the bush.” Though the mother had forgotten the story, the boy remembered it and still believes it. The mother seems surprised that her son still thinks about the story. When she remembers the story that she told her son so long ago she finds it darker, and more ominous. Now, instead of providing her son with something to feel special about, the story is a crutch that her son is using to try to escape the harsh realities of real life.
“Portrait of a Child” is much harder to interpret. Like “Black Swan” it features an adult who creates art about a child. When the painter finds a dead and drowned child on the riverbank, he initially thinks “all the right things” by relating the death of the child to his own son, and thinking about the very real possibility that his own son could have died. This is called the right thing to think because it is an empathetic response on the painter’s part. The painter sees the dead boy as special just like his own son is special. Just as he would be very hurt if his own son had died, he knows that someone else must be very hurt that this boy has died. In response to this, the painter decides to turn the situation into art. Viewing the boy as a symbol, he sees the beauty of the cold blue lips and spilled blood, relating the boy’s death to the death of Christ. This inspires the painter to create a portrait of the dead child just as many other painters down through the years have created portraits of Christ and his death.
There is an important difference between the art created in “Portrait of a Child” and “Black Swan”. The art in “Black Swan” was created both about and for its subject, the young boy. The art in “Portrait of a Child” was about its subject, the drowned boy, but it was a broader, more symbolic work that was not created for the subject himself, but rather for others in general who would appreciate the dead boy as a symbol for the fragile nature of life, and the possibility of beauty in death.
The response of the two boys to the art created about them also differs. The young boy in “Black Swan” recognizes the story as being about him, yet he doesn’t see it as art, but rather as truth. He chooses to believe the art, and by focusing on it as reality he fails to see the reality of life around him. His response to teasing from other boys is to express a desire to escape into the art. This hurts his mother, who created that art in the first place, and who loves her son as he is now, grown up to her waist and no longer a baby. Even if the other boys tease him, his mother still loves him and thinks he is special. The boy doesn’t see this, but instead focuses on how special he seems to be in the story. In contrast, the boy in “Portrait of a Child” easily recognizes that the dead boy in the painting is not him. This shows that the boy in “Portrait of a Child” is able to do what the boy in “Black Swan” cannot: recognize the difference between a symbol and reality.
The lesson of both “Black Swan” and “Portrait of a Child” is that is fine to use art as a technique for seeing the special things of this world, but it is not okay to try to escape into art at the expense of losing our connection with the real world. The story in “Black Swan” initially gave the boy a feeling of being special, because the symbolic boy in the story, standing for him, was found under such interesting circumstances, and valued enough that his mother was willing to steal him. However, later the boy has grown up and desires to return to live in the art, rather than in the reality where his mother still loves and values him. This harms his connection to the real life, and hurts his mother who wouldn’t want him to be unborn, back beneath the figurative bush with the black swan. In “Portrait of a Child” the painting of the young boy is a symbolic work created by the painter to reflect his own feeling of empathy for the drowned boy. The work is intended to cause others to think, just like the painter, of their own young sons. When the drowned boy wakes and sees the portrait he recognizes it as fundamentally different from him despite looking similar. By recognizing the difference between himself and the art about him, the boy is able to ponder the fragile nature of his own life and feel pity for his alter ego on canvas. This external interpretation of art to real life is healthy and mind expanding, unlike the escapist desire of the boy in “Black Swan” to change himself into a figure in a piece of art.
Our response to art should be like that of the young boy in “Portrait of a Child.” We can use art to feel special, feel empathy, or experience beauty, but we should never forget that art is just words, or paint, and that it is not real except in the minds of its audience. By recognizing this we can beneficially apply art to our lives without trying to live within the art as the boy of “Black Swan” harmfully desires. In this way “Portrait of a Child” and “Black Swan” teach us how we should relate art to our lives.