Shirley J. Brewer

The Cone Sisters
The Yellow Dress, Henri Matisse, oil on canvas, 1929-31
The Cone Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art

Oh, Etta and Claribel, you gave me The Yellow Dress,
part of my own wardrobe now.

In the presence of shimmer,
must I wear a burdensome winter coat?

I picture myself slipping
into glorious yellow taffeta.

Rich spinsters, two sisters,
Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone

met Monsieur Matisse in Montmartre.
Art patrons, they lapped up his work.

My Baltimore ladies, he called them,
his voice steeped in affection.

Austere in long dresses and high Victorian collars,
early twentieth-century apparel—the sisters

gathered the greatest collection of Matisse
in the world. On a map, a mere sliver from my home.

A masked guard spins me around this museum room,
across shiny, patterned floors.

Everywhere I look,
a galaxy of light.


Would not it be best to leave room to mystery? —H.M.

Dear Critic,
The Yellow Dress, Henri Matisse
oil on canvas, 1929-31, Baltimore Museum of Art

You have studied The Yellow Dress with the nose of a bloodhound.
Not content to delight in the richness of my palette,
you bemoan the absence of the model’s feet. Sir,
my canvas showcases a garment of sunshine.
Yet, your merciless inquisition persists:
“Where are her feet?”
“Why does Monsieur Matisse shun shoes?”

Sir, following a series of deep breaths,
look again at The Yellow Dress.
Entertain joy in what is present—light,
the array of colors and patterns, essential lines.
Give yourself permission to awaken.
Please notice the shuttered window. Beyond,
a patch of periwinkle, the subtle smudge of sea.

Yours in patience,

Henri Matisse


The Society of Obscure Yellow Dresses
The Yellow Dress , Henri Matisse,
oil on canvas, 1929-31, Baltimore Museum of Art

meets on Tuesdays at 9 am
at the Common Ground Espresso Bar in Hampden.
Usual spot—window table. Mandatory masks.

Feel free to join us—
if you are not The Yellow Dress by Matisse.
Full of itself, that dress. Gorgeous, yes.
Far from the only golden ticket in town.

We are the overlooked, sales-rack-markdowns, lost
delinquents who besmirch the yellow brand.
Amber, ochre, saffron, blond,
lutescent, never lily-livered.

We struggle to raise the hem of our self esteem.
We try to shrink our distress.
We weep into our puffy sleeves.

In homage to Monsieur Matisse,
his skills rendered a masterpiece so fine
every other yellow dress in the world

pales in its luminous wake.
Paint us, too, we beg the artists passing by,
from our front table at Common Ground—
a quartet of lemons awash in lemon light.

© Shirley J. Brewer

Shirley J. Brewer (Baltimore, MD) serves as poet-in-residence at Carver Center for the Arts. Her poems appear in Barrow Street, Comstock Review, Gargoyle, Poetry East, Slant, among other journals. Shirley’s poetry books include A Little Breast Music (2008, Passager Books), After Words (2013, Apprentice House), and Bistro in Another Realm (2017, Main Street Rag). Shirley was a 2020 guest on  The Poet and The Poem with Grace Cavalieri, broadcast from the Library of Congress.

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