27 January 2013


Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaeus;
or, The Mulata

                  After the painting by Diego Velásquez, c. 1619

                                                by Natasha Trethewey

She is the vessels on the table before her:

the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher

clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red

and upside-down. Bent over, she is the mortar,

and the pestle at rest in the mortar -- still angled

in its posture of use. She is the stack of bowls

and the bulb of garlic beside it, the basket hung

by a nail on the wall and the white cloth bundled

in it, the rag in the foreground recalling her hand.

She’s the stain on the wall the size of her shadow --

the color of blood, the shape of a thumb. She is echo

of Jesus at table, framed in the scene behind her:

his white corona, her white cap. Listening, she leans

into what she knows. Light falls on half her face.

             Juan de Pareja, 1670

         He was not my father
though      he might have been
         I came to him
the mulatto son
                   of a slave woman
        just that
as if       it took only my mother
       to make me
                    a mulatto
                   any white man
could be my father
In his shop     bound
       to the muller
I ground his colors
       my hands dusted     black
with fired bone     stained 
      blue     and flecked
with glass     my nails
edged vermilion     as if
     my fingertips bled
In this way     just as
     I'd turned the pages
of his books
    I meant to touch
          everything he did
With Velásquez     in Rome
     a divination
At market     I lingered to touch
     the bright hulls of lemons
          closed by eyes until
    the scent was oil
and thinner     yellow ocher
    in my head
         And once
the sudden taste of iron
         a glimpse of red
   like a wound-opening
         the robes of the pope
a portrait
         that bright shade of blood
         before it darkens
purpling nearly to black
Because he said
        painting was not
        labor     was
the province of free men
       I could only 
watch     Such beauty
      in the work of his hands
               his quick  strokes
     a divine language I learned
over his shoulder
               my own hands
tracing the air
     in his wake     Forbidden
              to answer in paint
I kept my canvases secret
              hidden until
     Velásquez decreed
              unto me
     myself     Free
I was apprentice     he
             my master still
How intently at times
      could he fix his keen eye
              upon me
though only once
     did he fix me     in paint
my color a study
     my eyes wide
             as I faced him
a lace collar at my shoulders
     as though I'd been born
     the yoke of my birth
gone from my neck
     In his hand     a long brush
            to keep him far
     from the canvas
far from it     as I was
     the distance between us
           doubled     that
he could observe me
     twice     stand closer
           to what he made
For years     I looked to it
     as one looks into a mirror
                  And so
  in The Calling of Saint Matthew
     I painted my own
likeness     a freeman
     in the House of Customs
           waiting to pay
my duty     In my hand
     an answer     a slip of paper
           my signature on it
     Juan de Pareja     1661
Velásquez     one year gone
     Behind me
            upright on a shelf
a forged platter     luminous
            as an aureole
     just beyond my head
            my face turned
to look out from the scene
     a self-portrait
To make it
           I looked at how
my master saw me     then
     I narrowed my eyes
     at the bright edge
of sleep     mother
She comes back to me
    as sound
           her voice
in the echo of birdcall
    a single syllable
and again     my name
    Juan Juan Juan
or     a bit of song    that
I cannot grasp 

 Natasha Trethewey, Thrall: Poems. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

See also Blacks in Renaissance Painting.

No comments:

Post a Comment

No Anonymous comments, please.