Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Poet Helen Engelhardt's Vermeers

Helen Engelhardt, poet, writer, storyteller and independent audio producer of Midsummer Sound Company, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in national journals and international anthologies, her audiobooks nominated for "audies", her storytelling performance awarded the Hemingway Days prize. Poems featured here are part of a series inspired by Vermeer's paintings. "I chose Vermeer because his body of work is, with only four exceptions, focused entirely on the intimate, interior life of women. " Visit her at midsummersoundcompany.com.

The Music Lesson
Musica Letitiae Comes Medicina Doloris * 

At the other end of a long room
the lady and the cavalier alone at last
stand in silence, the virginal between them

He is captivated. His hand clasps the edge
of the instrument, declaring his intentions.
His unguarded face awaits her mercy.

She is her own pedestal. Her skirts,
a fluted column, neither resist nor comply.
Her back is to us, her face a blur

in the enigmatic mirror. We will never learn
her reply, nor look upon the face of the master
who shows us his easel reflected above

her head. Others reveal themselves
at work in miniature. He gives us the world
in the mirror, wherein we can lose ourselves.

Nothing intimate is uncovered here
but the nape of her neck, the back of the man
in the painting on the wall: a naked prisoner

who kneels before an unseen lady.
He is receiving Roman Charity. The lesson
is over. The music has not yet begun.

(Roman Charity or The Story of Cimon and Pero was the name of a genre painting favored at the time, depicting a naked man suckling the breast of a clothed lady standing before him. Pero suckled her imprisoned father who had been condemned to die by starvation.)

* Words written on the lid of the virginal, “Music, the companion of joy, the balm of sorrow”

Woman Holding a Balance

At noon a beam of light decides                                 Would that my judge, serene
to witness the judgment in this room                           as this woman burgeoning,
suspends a balance in the air                                     will find at the end

jewels poised upon her palms.                                   both my soul and my songs abiding.

View of Delft

Earth has nothing to show fairer
than Delft adrift between clouds
and their reflections. A faience of russet
walls and tiled roofs, gleams
of gold along the quays, canals
enameled green and blue. All clues
are concealed in the scrubbed cobbles. Tulip
fever once inflamed this citadel
of sobriety, shook Delft to its foundations.
The Thunderclap burst the arch
of heaven, blew away streets
with people, buried Fabritius, his canvas
and the man sitting for his portrait, under
the ruins of his home.  Gliding under
the open mouthed bridges, dark
waters mirror windows.  Did fire
ever devour everything except
the pointed turrets of the East Gate?
All seems so serene.
The most beautiful light in the world peals
through a carillon of leaves, across
the alleys, across the River Schie
to a building overlooking the port, to a window
on the second floor.  The natural light
of the mind.  You can stand today where he stood,
overlooking the natural-gas reservoir,
some new houses. The design remains
and so does the water.

(Vermeer was a pupil of Carel Fabritius, who, when he died in an explosion of gunpowder known as The Thunderclap in 1654, was a young painter of great promise)

in homage to William Wordsworth

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Piero della Francesca's “The Resurrection” (Just in Time for Easter)

Resurrection, c.1460

Inspired by recent interest in Piero della Francesca and two memorable exhibits—at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2014) and the Frick (2013)—here are two interpretations of the Renaissance painter’s “The Resurrection.” Each very different, each masterful.

See also Jorie Graham's "San Sepolcro" published here and this essay by Walter Kaiser in The New York Review of Books http://www.nybooks.com/articles

Rowan Williams 
Resurrection: Borgo San Sepolcro

Today it is time. Warm enough, finally
to ease the lids apart, the wax lips of a breaking bud
defeated by the steady push, hour after hour,
opening to show wet and dark, a tongue exploring,
an eye shrinking against the dawn. Light
like a fishing line draws its catch straight up,
then slackens for a second. The flat foot drops,
the shoulders sags. Here is the world again, well-known,
the dawn greeted in snoring dreams of a familiar
winter everyone prefers. So the black eyes
fixed half-open, start to search, ravenous,
imperative, they look for pits, for hollows where
their flood can be decanted, look
for rooms ready for commandeering, ready
to be defeated by the push, the green implacable
rising. So he pauses, gathering the strength
in his flat foot, as the perspective buckles under him,
and the dreamers lean dangerously inwards. Contained,
exhausted, hungry, death running off his limbs like
from a shower, gathering himself. We wait,
paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg 
The Resurrection (Piero della Francesca)

In the 1550s a lantern-maker, Marco, testified
That as a child he had “led Piero by the hand”
Through the streets of Borgo San Sepolcro.
Piero, blind, and following a child guide along

The chessboard of his native city’s streets
To the Civic Palace, within the tumbled walls
Of the Town of the Holy Sepulchre. Piero, blind—
Who once, with earth imported from the Black Sea,

Had dusted pinhole pricks on tracing sheets,
To trace “The Dream of Constantine” on the wall,
And the serf who leaned against his hovel
Awaiting Helena’s command to dig for the Cross,

And Pilate, impassive, hooded in the Judgment Seat,
And the beautiful Jew who was tortured in a well—
Piero, white-gowned, a cataract prisoner, now
Shuffles with outstretched hands, while far-off bales

Of straw, in fields ignited by sunset,
Smolder behind him, setting a broken wall on fire.
The hem of a mantle of tree roots flames up,
Like a patch of ancient sewing work littered

With those pearls for which Duke Federigo paid
A great price back in the old life, stitched
With silver leaf, in luminous embroiderings,
Lying tossed like a discarded shroud over

Kindling sticks in the hedge of thorns
The goldfinch once inhabited, her nest
A torch’s head fallen from its stick
Beyond the curb of the marbly dream-town,

Where towers, knocked down across the countryside,
Half crumble like sugar-cube constructions
For a wedding, or dissolve like knocked-over
Buckets of sand for children’s battlements,

For a city left behind in the wake of the earthquake
Of 1352, or the quake at Christ’s death,
Since history is behind Piero now, and
The goldfinch is saved, circling ecstatically

Above Piero’s head as he climbs a cement staircase
Step by step. When you were young, you girded
Yourself and walked wherever you would. But
When you are old, you will stretch forth

Your hands, and another will gird you
And carry you where you would not go.
Halting in the streets of Holy Sepulchre,
Grown old in the town of his nativity,

Taken by the hand of the Civic Palace,
He stops at the site of “The Resurrection,”
And lifts his outstretched hand from Marco’s shoulder,
As if he groped for the lip of a stone coffin

From antiquity set only inches away from where
The blind man appears to be staring in fright
Into God’s face. Behind him the pink twinkle
Of twilight is a banner moist with one drop

Of Jewish blood: before him, the distant
Blue mountain of Purgatory. His fingertips touch
Only picture-shadowing earth from the Black Sea.
Once he could squint at “The Resurrection” through

An ever-smaller pinhole of light, like
A pinhole pecked for him by the finch’s beak,
Through which he sifted powder for his drawings—
She whose nest had fallen when the mowers

Burned away the branches, she who had let
Piero approach, but only so far, and then
Warned him off with her gaze of terror,
When he would have bent on his knees in the grass

To stroke her anxious, silky head with
A fingertip, touching the scarlet cap
That stained it like a tiny, bloody drop,
But he’d backed away, not wanting to scare her—

But the pinhole he had peered through closed.
Now his shoes press against the plaster wall
Of blind old age, backed up by the empty place
Brick walls depict, where paint is a scent

That still could conjure the belfrie of papier-mâché
He had painted for an important Duke,
A famous humanist he’d once depicted travelling
At twilight in a straw-wagon with angels

Conversing in seraphic languages
Along the outskirts of a shining thunderstorm
Before the distant prospect of Rome-Jerusalem-Urbino.
Now he stands sightless with his empty hand

Outstretched at the rough edge of the sepulcher
Recently broken open, before which
Jesus has turned to Piero, holding out to him
Death’s unraveled, pitiful bandages.
Madonna and Child with Two Angels (ca. 1464–74?)