A Portrait

December 12, 2013

Of a gasp. Not so much for her beauty,
as for her sojourn. Her temporality. Buttress
and mistress of the night. The Santa Lucia.

AKA St. Lucy, painted a thousand years ago
by an unknown master who never met
his subject. St. Lucy as frozen pigment.

Or so she seems. We find it hard
to imagine her mouth inside another’s mouth,
her love lost in another’s house.

For what would she think of us now
in our conflation of virginity with the light
in her distant yet knowing eyes?

An organ starts to play. Tonight is St. Lucy’s
festival. The wind blows her hair.
The stars burn tonight as candles.

We begin to tremble, as if
unconvinced by her portrait, as she
begins to move back into her unpainted flesh.

Surely we are right to resist another possession,
one we can’t quite believe in: a light ahead,
the tunnel’s end, all souls, no rest.

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3 Responses to “A Portrait”

  1. John Stevens Says:

    You have spun an enchantment with these lines, Jim. There are some beautiful sounds in the lines (e.g. buttress and mistress) and images (the stars burn like candles, for instance). And you sent me looking up St Lucy. Those closing lines are resonant; having looked back 2000 years you leave us looking ahead to our own demise. But there are things I don’t understand – for example ‘her mouth inside another’s mouth). And are you looking at a particular painting, maybe a fresco? I think you are, and it would be interesting to know more of that.

  2. Anna Mark Says:

    I like how she comes alive, moves beyond her still portrait into a living spirit, the wind in her hair, the trembling and resistance. Heavenly but also frightening, “all souls, no rest…” The end lines bring me back into the poem to her “mouth inside another’s mouth” and her love lost in another’s house. The intercession of a saint, perhaps? or possession? Whatever…there is a living spirit in this poem that goes beyond the words, beyond the portrait, the stillness of the paint. Nice.

  3. extrasimile Says:

    Actually, John, I kind of made it a point not to look at any portraits of St Lucy when I was working on this poem. I had a general idea of what they looked like—the eyes on a platter, the pious look, the lack of individual qualities—that kind of thing. The point to make, I guess, is that this poem is not really a portrait, as such, of St Lucy, or anybody else. But perhaps neither are the iconographic portraits. Anna, I think you are on safer ground here—or riskier ground—pointing to the living spirit slowly coming to the surface of the painting—the mouth inside another’s mouth stuff. That St Lucy should come back to life—after the use of her ‘day’ in the John Donne poem as the very epitome of death is the central—I don’t want to say ‘irony’ here, for this is not an ironic poem—but it (the poem) wishes you to see it in the light of the John Donne poem (A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day…) as a kind of coda. (Nor would it hurt, if you thought, ‘Doesn’t St Lucy make a brief appearance in Dante?) To put it simply, Lucy’s reality is largely literary. That is what lurks behind this fictive portrait. Perhaps I should do an actual painting of St Lucy, a la Francis Bacon… (Would that I were good enough to do that.) How to present/ think about the spirit, god, consciousness, the mind/ body problem, the self, etc. remain the preoccupation here. Thanks again for your time and forbearance.


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