William Farquhar’s Natural History Paintings: Malay Peninsula, 1803–1818

The discovery of the Malay flying dragon
depends in part on our desire
for its existence, as its first image
in Farquhar’s book depends on the Chinese
artist anonymously commissioned
to paint it in Farquhar’s name.
 
Both acts being opportunities to claim
what was once fleetingly
dreamed of: the pink
lace umbrella wings and shock
of blue underbelly suggesting
all things possess a quality of spirit
 
we struggle to capture.
The more accurate the drawing, the less
our needed faith. And yet,
isn’t half of accuracy predetermined
by our appetites? Do we want before
or as soon as we can see?
 
Farquhar persuaded Parliament
to take control of Singapore
by presenting it its map, and “We try
but can never enter the same
woman twice,” a man I mostly admire
 
writes on the back of a photo of me, meaning
any image is conceivable
as invitation, the boundary of one’s legs or face
as immanent, as shapeable as a river’s.
Why shouldn’t there be a dragon
 
if I wanted one? Why couldn’t I make its tongue
be such a brilliant shade of green?
Something shimmers in the pink
mailed carapace, like a name
 
wiped partly clean: a smear
echoed in a corner of Farquhar’s painting
of the colony’s Bombay duck, which,
if his Chinese artist’s renderings are true,
 
is neither fowl nor from Bombay, but a channel fish,
with fins like black fanned knife blades
and a belly the color of roasted pumpkin.
 
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Women's Studies front coverPaisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee; a photo-text memoir that combines poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and photography entitled Intimate; and four books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos, Six Girls Without Pants, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope, and Animal Eye, which won the UNT Rilke Prize. Her work has received the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a NEA Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, a Fulbright Fellowship, and various state arts council awards.
 
“William Farquhar’s Natural History Paintings: Malay Peninsula, 1803–1818” originally appeared in Women’s Studies (TLR, Winter 2015).