In Search of Albrecht Dürer
Let me reach through the scrim of five centuries
with the language and hindsight of today - to see
what I can hold.
Outside the window
water saturates the sky,
the branches are smudged,
soft rivulets course
through a distorted heaven.
This dreamy otherness
with its mellow linearity
asks for the brush,
just a touch of colour
and an abundance of water.
The willow branches
hang low over the stilled water,
each one tipped by a quivering
globule of liquid.
Willing and pensive they sway
over their own reflection.
This suspension of light,
this diffusion of water in air
feels like a breath held –
when I do breathe out
and open the window,
the moist, invigorating
morning air brushes my face.
Below me, in the workroom,
I hear footfall,
the clearing of phlegm
from a night-time throat,
and the soft shuffle
of my apprentice
going about his duties.
I will be down shortly.
What is Beauty?
What is beauty I am asked time and again,
my answer, “I do not know,”
never satisfies. Pressed, I suggest –
usefulness, pleasure, and harmony
but never seem to give satisfaction.
Beauty, my eye tells me,
is there in the unformed figure
of the young girl,
her already too tight bodice
encasing her like a bud,
in her unfocussed gaze,
her lack of knowing,
much like in her counterpart,
the old woman, the withered crone
of my drawings,
with her ropey neck, emptied out clavicles,
caved-in cheeks and mouth drawn tight
that speak of the life endured.
reaching for the charcoal stick
to release my compassion
into the fluting, draping lines,
the faint criss-cross strokes
across her chest, her heart.
But her gaze, that vast pool
of disillusionment, has let go
of life’s concerns and
found a new focus –
to whatever time is left.
How quickly her familiar face
had taken shape under my hand,
as I, with a son’s loving surety,
smudged the charcoal’s soft burr
to soften the lines that life engraved,
and that I, it seems,
was destined to retrace.
As I smooth out the latest likeness
of Agnes, my wife, on the worktable,
I wonder what made me explore
the “double-portrait” the way I have.
There are several of them by now,
all done over the past year –
in the latest, a young girl from Cologne,
dreams herself outward
just beyond the imagined frame,
while my Agnes, her back turned on the girl,
fastens her eyes unswervingly
somewhere beyond the margin.
She will not approve of her likeness, I think –
not, that she would tell me as much –
she never lost that tightly wound look
that I caught in my first drawings of her.
And she would be right. There is pain here,
the pain of the childless woman
trapped in my portrait next
to the great absence in her life.
Am I cruel to touch that wound
with my fine silverpoint pencil,
which line-by-line makes this absence
become flesh beside her?
In other portraits:
“Young woman-Old woman”,
or “Tobler and Pfinzig,”
the pairings were dictated by reason,
urged on paper by my entranced hand
which loves texture of dress and ornament,
yet also tries to delve beneath the surface
of skin and bone to snag character
in a pair of pursed lips, or the burn and gleam
of a pair of eyes.
Only one double portrait stands apart:
“Caspar Sturm – River Landscape”.
Caspar, a huge solid man just took possession
of the page. His rough-hewn jaw, dimpled chin,
sensitive mouth a perfect study in contrasts –
even his eyes with their characteristic cast
of one eye looking fiercely ahead,
while the other, obliquely turned right,
speak of the man.
I well remember his soft cap, its complex
many-folded shape, earflaps slightly askew
as if he had just walked in off the street.
No, Caspar’s portrait
would not suffer another’s by its side.
Instead, I filled in a delicate river landscape,
its shore lined with heavy fortifications
like the ramparts of an old town.
More of a dreamscape, than one seen
by the daytime eye.
I was never sure whether Caspar
approved of this likeness,
whether he even recognized himself.
Perhaps he just thought
I had done well by showing the intricate folds
of his homely cap and the narrow ribbon
that tied his shirt shut at the neck.
By way of an afterthought –
two years later, this very same Caspar,
aided our man Luther’s escape
to the Diet of Worms.
Noon – or Thereabouts
There is always a part of me
that harkens to the noises
of the household,
the part, furthest removed
from my point of concentration.
At times, my hand
does one thing, while I,
in another realm,
pursue something yet unthought.
I may hunt down this elusive prey
for days, even weeks. It even
invades my sleep – often to good effect.
This silent pursuit along
a fine-honed edge of attention
can lead me to a place, where
what my eyes have held,
and what my hands have learned,
coalesce to bring forth something new.
This liminal space
I consider my real workshop.
Untouched by weather, the tempers
of the household, considerations
of economy, practicality,
and above all, the desire of others,
it is my one free space.
Carduelis Spinus - Siskin
My apprentices often scatter the leavings
of their meals along the windowsill.
Just now, a slight, scrabbling sound
from the open window
makes me lift my head from the quarto sheet,
and I see, as expected, the compact
olive green body, the cadmium-yellow
streaked wings, the sooty bib
and the tell-tale, inked cap of a siskin.
They are numerous around here, filling the air
with their ascending and descending trills,
their effortless, rapid twitter.
Their flitting about, their sudden disappearances
remind me of the old tale of the Siskin’s magic stone:
the one they guard closely in their nests
to assure invisibility.
Some time ago I painted one such bird –
made him permanently visible.
In Madonna with the Siskin, a humble siskin
alights on the infant’s left arm,
wings aflutter, it animates the whole scene.
Wings: Blue Roller and Angels
I cannot recall the exact moment
when fate dropped the wing
of the Blue Roller on my worktable.
Not the whole bird,
just its neatly severed wing.
There it lay, spread out
like a fan from the orient,
in breathtaking colours
of indigo, iron ore,
verdigris and wet clay.
It recalled the charming tale,
apocryphal or not, of the male,
who as part of his courtship dance,
presents, holding a feather in his beak.
This wing unfurled,
its complex layers, gradients
of colour culminating in veritable
cumulus clouds of grey-tinged green,
is held by the deep indigo band
of the shoulder.
How well I remember the pleasure
of losing myself in the minute strokes
of the downy afterfeathers, which,
light as air, put one in mind of
the very idea of flight.
How often have I crowded
my scenes of veneration
with countless putti and angels?
The whirr of their wings
have filled whole images.
I wonder, are these the wings
of my belief, or of my doubt?
“Behold the Man”
This is the beginning: age thirteen.
My very first self-portrait,
its tender half-profile catches
the still slumbering awareness
of my younger years,
each subsequent portrait, in tandem
with my standing in the world,
moves in increments
from delicate silverpoint to
the “undying” colour of oil.
What was I searching for
beyond the act of showing?
Beyond the sumptuous silk, the lavish fur trim,
the brocade and tassels, my indulgent
depictions of hair and my fair countenance,
beyond documenting my increased
value to the world?
Yet, I remember other portraits
amongst the many – where,
by unmasking skin, bone and sinew
my body speaks truer.
One, in particular, where my probing look
reaches out from the canvas
and shows a troubling awareness
in the hand raised to shield my face.
Was I trying to lift the veil that slides
between us and our true knowing of who we are?
That sphere just below, and beyond our ken,
where we, and what we might be, lies dreaming?
Yes, I was searching. Am doing so still.
Am still, above all, my own “Man of Sorrows.”
This dream, this vision of the night,
ineffable and powerful, took hold of me
between Wednesday and Whitsuntide:
… great waters fell from the sky four miles on,
they hit the earth with such cruel, momentous
splashing, such a fury of sound, that all
of the land appeared drowned.
Some of it fell further away, some closer,
giving the appearances of slow motion –
but wherever the water hit, it did so accompanied
by strong winds and a sound so wrenching, it
tore me out of the dream and left me trembling –
and for a long time, I could not find back to myself…
May God turn everything for the best.*
When I surface sucking the air
like a man returned from near drowning,
I reach for my pen and watercolours.
A delicate wash of cobalt
seeps in loose runnels from a wan sky,
the center column, in a deeper hue,
piles volume on volume.
Masses of water spreading
above patches of delicate ochre
that dot a bereft landscape.
Why this dread? Why this feeling
of apocalyptic doom?
What unnameable thing
fills me with such terror?
Could it be the undoing of form
as colour drips like hot wax
from an amorphous sky?
Or is it the very loss of line,
of verisimilitude that throws
my art into question?
*translation my own
How rare these moments of true silence
during a sleepless night
a silence in which the world itself
seems to have fallen by-the-way
and yet, I discern a cooling breeze
playing in the far-off trees,
then, a short scuffle in the courtyard below
as if the dogs were torn out of their dreams
much later, further off, but coming closer,
a rumbling of wheels on cobblestones,
their grating metallic ring reverberating on stone
I must have fallen asleep just now –
found myself back in Antwerp – on the ship.
Once more, we were about to be swept
out to sea, helpless puppets at the mercy
of the fickle elements
my life, my life’s work,
the hardship, the pain,
the joy and the glory
no more than the ephemeral gestures
of wave after wave
Finally, the sound of early morning bells,
their intermingling harmonies,
and the discordance of one belfry
competing against the others like a rival belief
call me back to the work still undone,
and the remaining years
waiting to be rounded off.
Barbara Ponomareff lives in southern Ontario, Canada. By profession a child psychotherapist, she has been fortunate to be able to pursue her lifelong interest in literature, art and psychology since her retirement. The first of her two novellas, dealt with a possible life of the painter J.S. Chardin. Her short stories, memoirs and poetry have appeared in Descant, (EX)cite, Precipice and various other literary magazines and anthologies. She has contributed to The Ekphrastic Review on numerous occasions and was delighted to win one of the recent flash story contests.
The Ekphrastic Review
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