Sitting in the Rothko Chapel on a Summer Afternoon
For years, he worked on the fourteen canvases
until, sick and depressed, he hired two assistants
to apply the paint at his direction, one deliberate
brushstroke after another, until they achieved
the dark hues he dreamed of. He did not live to see
the canvases mounted on the walls of the chapel.
Death was simple for him—an overdose
of antidepressants, then a razor blade to both arms.
The artist of his own death, he was found
lying on his kitchen floor, blood spilled on
the white tiles like paint splattered on a canvas.
Today, I sit on a bench in his chapel. On the walls,
the dark canvases surround me, drawing me
into a place where, once again, I can hold
my mother’s hand in mine, just as I did weeks ago
in the austere white of a hospital room filled
with the cacophonous beeps of machines
tracking her vital signs, numbers documenting
what the doctors needed to know to keep her alive.
What they did not understand—what she did—
was that she was ready to die. As I stood beside her,
she bolted up in bed and, like a sparrow flying
off into the night, life left her body. In the silence
of the chapel on this summer afternoon, I can hear
her voice calling out from one world to the other
telling me she is not yet ready for me to join her.
Nor am I, but that will change in time,
on another summer afternoon, soon enough.
Paul Alexander is the editor of the essay collection Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath and the author of seven books, including Rough Magic, a biography of Plath, and Salinger, a biography of J.D. Salinger that was the basis of Shane Salerno’s documentary Salinger, which appeared on American Masters on PBS. He has published nonfiction in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe, and The New York Review of Books, among many others. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry (Chicago), The Sewanee Review, Southern Poetry Review, POEM, Poetry Now, Mississippi Review, The Louisville Review, The Vanderbilt Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, The Spoon River Quarterly, The Black Warrior Review, The Hiram Poetry Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Connecticut River Review, Deep South, Cold Creek Review, and The Gay and Lesbian Review. He is the author of Edge, a one-woman play about Sylvia Plath. A graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he teaches at the Eugene Lang College at The New School in New York City.