I began this poem as part of a project started by the late Lee Sharkey in partnership with the Portland Museum of Art, in which poets were invited to write in response to an exhibit. Between Isak Dinesen’s reaction to Richard Avedon’s portrait and her story of Babette pouring everything into one evening’s meal, it seems questions of balance and imbalance are rich. Is it imbalanced to pour everything into that one meal, or is that how Babette balanced all the losses she had endured, how she got her balance back? Was Avedon being perverse, or was he trying to balance the work he did with all the slick magazines?

—Betsy Sholl


Thinking of Richard Avedon’s Portrait of Isak Dinesen


Of course part of me wanted the tulips

I just bought to stay in closed-up potential,

and my own face to remain young,

untouched by grief and worry. But watching

the slow-motion explosion each day,

as they unfold, stems weakening, heads

bent, each petal’s wilt and fall, I think of

Isak Dinesen’s face, how Avedon’s camera

emphasized crack and sag. Perverse,

she thought—his spotlight on her edge of decay,

crushed and glorious. But perhaps he’d

become sickened by all those models

slicked up for the glossies, and needed instead

a sunken cheek, a face that had been through

the press of heartache, gravity of time,

ruined enough to show a different beauty,

a face that let itself be written on, as if

that’s how she came to write of others—

to imagine Babette, fleeing Paris after

the Revolution, that once high chef exiled

to a dreary Norwegian town, her cause lost,

husband and son gone. Then the lottery ticket’s

sudden windfall she pours into one evening’s

brilliance for townsfolk who won’t grasp

what’s been given. But for Babette—to be

chef again, to practice her art once more

in that extravagant meal, its many wines

and delicacies! Then in the aftermath,

to stand among the picked bones, stacked

dishes, bare stems and fallen petals,

her eyes bright and fierce, having spared

nothing, happy to have spent it all.


Image at top: Lee Chisholm, Portrait of Isak Dinesen, charcoal, water color, acrylic, 15 x 21 in., from a photograph by Richard Avedon and inspired by Betsy Sholl’s poem.