Start Reading the Sublime, Poetic Widow Basquiat

“Sublime, poetic . . . [Clement] chronicles her close friend Suzanne Mallouk’s love affair with Basquiat in elegant, spare, riveting prose,” says Rebecca Walker for NPR.

“A powerful female coming of age story . . . A harrowing, beautifully told love story about two seekers colliding in a pivotal moment in history, and setting everything, including themselves, on fire.”

Dive into the read with this exclusive excerpt of Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement.
 
SUZANNE MEETS JEAN MICHEL AT NIGHT BIRDS

Jean-Michel has found Suzanne like a small box, an old coat, a penny on a sidewalk, found a little boy-girl like him. He also knows his skeleton. When he was hit by a car as a child his mother gave him Gray’s Anatomy to read in the hospital. He willed his bones whole. He knows what makes an arm bend to strike, what bones can be crushed and what bones carry him across the street. He knows his boneless shadow that disappears in summer. He is in a band called Gray. The band plays instruments hiding in boxes.

Jean-Michel wears a big, long overcoat. He stands away from the bar and comes in every day to watch Suzanne. She reads Nausea by Sartre behind the bar. This is an old man, taxi-driver bar. Cigar-smoke dark. Suzanne looks like a boy except for her red lips. She is a shoe-shine boy with a black cap on her head and big shoes. She asks the customers in her honey, twelve-year-old voice, ‘Mister, sir, will that be a double or single?’

Jean-Michel watches Suzanne for two months. He never speaks to her. He leans against the jukebox at the back of the room, smokes cigarettes and plays Eartha Kitt’s song, ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’, over and over again. He has very short hair with long dreadlocks in the back. He is twenty years old, slender and tall, but childlike. There is a thickness about him from his excessive use of marijuana. Suzanne thinks, ‘If he falls on me he will be so heavy.’

He only orders the best. Every four days he puts a pile of pennies, nickels and dimes on the bar and orders a Rémy. Suzanne knows he will always want what is expensive.

He tells Suzanne, ‘You’re a pretty one.’

The third or fourth or fifth thing Suzanne tells Jean-Michel is, ‘High heels are a plot against women, they throw our spines out and stop us from standing on the ground.’

I always called Jean-Michel Jean.

A GUN IN A PAPER BAG

Jean-Michel comes into the bar every day. He reads Suzanne his poems from his ‘Black and White Notebooks’. He calls her Venus. He tells her he is thinking about her feet, thinking that they are always on the ground. He wants to touch her feet. He tells her to take off her shoes and walk with him in the street.

One day the owner of Night Birds, a Chinese man, shows Suzanne a brown paper bag with a gun in it. ‘Why don’t you have a nice white boyfriend?’ he asks.

Jean-Michel moves into Suzanne’s apartment. He brings only a broken radio and a tin can full of crayons. Kids’ stuff.

I had to quit working at Night Birds when the owner caught me and Jean kissing at the bar. He said he would never let his daughter do what I was doing and that I should look for a white boy. Then he showed me a gun he had hidden in a brown paper bag and that really frightened me.

Even though he’d been hanging out at the bar for a few months staring at me, I had only known Jean for a few days when I let him move into my apartment. He said that it would only be for a while, but from then on we could never stay away from each other.

CADILLAC MOON

With acrylic on canvas Jean-Michel paints a Cadillac and a moon. The letter ‘S’ appears on some paintings—placed here and there like a small worm or snake. ‘S’ is for Suzanne, like a tattoo. He paints, pauses, picks up a book or magazine and when he finds a word or sentence that he likes he paints it on the board or canvas.

They are code. The crown is the logo from the TV show, The Little Rascals. He mixes Spanish and English. One painting is of Suzanne, painted like a stick-figure holding a box that says ‘FOOD’. Beside her Jean-Michel paints himself carrying a box that says ‘SAL’. Sal is Spanish for ‘salt’—he says he is a ‘Mammy’ salt shaker.

He paints kings wearing black crowns covered in tar and feathers. He paints a simple square house with a triangle roof that has an ‘S’ inside, ‘Because, Suzanne, you are my home.’

On one painting he writes, ‘Jimmy Best on his back to the suckerpunch of his childhood files’, because he hears a hobo say this on television.

He writes ‘TAR’ everywhere in thick dark strokes because ‘I sometimes feel as black as tar’. He knows what it is to have a knife thrown at him. He knows what it is like to be tied up and fed like an animal. He knows the sound of a slap against his cheek and what blood tastes like. He hates the sound of a key in a lock, a door opening, the first step inside.

For a year or so before I met Jean he had called himself SAMO. He had painted some graffiti on the walls around New York City signing that name everywhere. Sometimes he’d run into people who still called him that. It was his street name. He dropped it when he no longer wanted to be part of the streets and subways.

NO BLACK MEN IN MUSEUMS

One Thursday in 1982, Jean-Michel tells Suzanne to stand up and walk, they are going to the MoMA. He tells Suzanne to wear his clothes. She ties his pants around her waist with a rope. His sweater hangs down to her knees.

At the museum Jean-Michel takes a bottle of water out of his coat and walks through the halls sprinkling the water here and there around him. ‘I’d piss like a dog if I could,’ he says, as they wander past paintings by Pollock, Picasso, Kline and Braque. Suzanne does not even ask what he is doing. She knows this is one of his Voodoo tricks.

‘There are no black men in museums,’ he says. ‘Try counting . . .’

Suzanne cannot find even one.

‘This is another white man’s cotton plantation,’ he explains.

When they get back home Jean-Michel puts on a Charlie Parker tape and tells Suzanne to be very quiet.

It begins to rain outside, a slow, dark rain that will not stop for three days.

Jean-Michel paints St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes. It shows the boxer slumped down after a fight, surrounded by a group of sinister-looking white men. Joe Louis is painted with a halo over his head and the paint drips from his name like blood falling down the canvas.

I realized that he must have been to the MoMA millions of times. I had no idea. I never knew when he went. He never mentioned it to me. I know that his mother had taken him to museums. Jean knew every inch of that museum, every painting, every room. I was astonished at his knowledge and intelligence and at how twisted and unexpected his observations could be.

I remember he had a book on Renoir that he loved. Once I asked him why and he said, ‘Because they are so violent.’ I argued with him and said that he was wrong, that the paintings showed placid French country life. He said I was stupid. He opened the book and showed me the painting of Mademoiselle Romaine Lacaux.

‘Those red flowers,’ he said, ‘are blood in her hands.’ Then he showed me The Sisleys and said, ‘You can just tell he hates her.’ Finally, he opened a page at Une Odalisque—the one of the harem woman—and Jean said, ‘Look, she is about to fart.’

His favorite painters were Kline and Twombly, especially Twombly. Jean said that Twombly taught him that he could scratch things out on the canvas. And, of course, he loved comic books, which were a great inspiration to him.

It made me so happy that he had taken me with him to the MoMA to do his spell with the water. It was really quite funny watching him sprinkle water everywhere, making sure the guards weren’t watching and looking around and up at the ceiling to see if any cameras were on him. He did not think it was funny, though. Jean did it with great seriousness like a priest.

Excerpted from Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement. Copyright © 2000 by Jennifer Clement. Published in the United States by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
 

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