Self-Portraits in a Goblet
As if it were an adage, that almost anything
can be brought to the table by careful hands,
arranged for shape, form, hew, artfully composed
like a baroque song and made something new.
If seen with discernment, even the iridescence
of fishscale ignites a dark room, whereas I can
only imagine the Somme when I see the dead
corpus cut open, the gruesome history of black
and white photography. It was her courage
of vision, then, to show the beauty of the dorsal
fin, to let the soft belly shine, to arrange all
the flowers in the same vase and claim them
for her horn-of-plenty picture. Beside an artichoke
in a colander, for example. Her genius was a flash
of pink flesh and an abstract eye looking back,
expecting more than it will receive, no longer
a life so uncertain it requires an active attention
and a constant sustenance, which is the burden
we bear for ourselves and our children, for whom
there can never be a single moment’s rest—
a flash like that only speaks to one who listens.
The young mother was always preparing something
for later, distracting herself with a restless clatter,
a tumble of utensils, a palm-slap of linen, a pot
spilling over, and a quiet curse never not spoken
with her inside voice, to no one in particular,
when the darkness took her and the shade was drawn.
Yet even during the dimmest hour she might stumble
across a glimmer at the sideboard, an afterthought,
an expression of the spirit suppressed for so long
it was almost forgotten, and a color would pop.
Irises, prawns, a brass candlestick, all were lit
over the shoulder from a window onto Antwerp,
through the cold, gray mists of that gateway city
with its a hard-won comforts and stolen luxuries,
cutting through the murk of northern pall, damp air,
a thin ray of brazen light to touch the wild-haired face
of the trade wind, a frenzied Aeolus stamped beneath
the pewter lid of her ceramic decanter, bought
and paid for don’t-ask-how, but here now, another
foreign juxtaposition to prove the axiom
that any future bounty will be pieced together
in seemingly random combinations until
we are all made whole, all made one again.
Not yet the sum of my many parts, I am a man
with his own mixing bowl, still whisking, still lost
in the froth and batter, still an ill-formed emulsion
of self and desire and the legacy of my father
transposed to this place at the edge of nowhere.
My character may not survive the altitude,
the temperature, the sameness of the ingredients.
I am becoming a creature of sprawling imprecision
but I have not lost my edge entirely, not yet,
and I can still tell when a true artist is showing off.
Yes, and I applaud any person who insists on presence.
Three cheers for any declaration of talent on the half
-shell, on the crab leg, on the hard cheese, on a scatter
of coins in the foreground. Such a casual spilling
is never as offhand as it may seem, and no one should
miss the symbolism, how the painterly soul sets
the value, how the true master is the clever one
who governs the metaphor, who tenders, who blends.
The hidden one whose will contains multitudes, she
is the invisible hand steering the ships of Flanders.
And there she is now in the convex orbs of gilt,
her face smudged like a child’s first scrawls, a likeness
in simple shapes configured to claim possession,
the owner and keeper surrounding plain sight,
six times! like a winking ghost, a guiding spirit,
the proud maker of loaves and fishes whose hour
only comes when it is time to draw the wine.
This is the finishing touch then, the culmination.
In the language of the Bourse, it is the pay-off
although I wonder how much profit she recovered.
All of our striving, our effort, our commerce serves
this moment, so be not afraid of the grand teleology
of being, of admitting that I you we are the answer
for everything since, sadly, we can only see so far,
and every self-denial is someone else’s convenience,
and surely it is better for us to experience
the pleasures of consummation, if someone must.
Of course a woman understands the danger better
than a man, she who barters her dowry for duty,
who surrenders her womb, who seldom reaches
satisfaction. How brave for her, then, to insist
on her name, to slash this lavish canvas, its promises
kept at the expense of the entire known universe.
Her name with its common, bland, dull specificity.
How bold to gather these goods together,
the breakfasts and banquets, the bouquets, but only
for their separation, to make this one distinction,
for once her own impulse—to sever all illusion
with her bridal knife, its silver handle the frieze
of a body just like hers, naked before God
and country, and signed: Clara Peeters.
John Tessitore writes poems and publishes chapbooks, and can’t seem to stop, but at the moment he is most excited about Be True, his podcast “about the writing I love, and the writing I do.”
The Ekphrastic Review
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