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.

20 January 2013

Some days the sea

                          by Richard Blanco

The sea is never the same twice. Today
the waves open their lions-mouths hungry
for the shore and I feel the earth helpless.
Some days their foamy edges are lace
at my feet, the sea a sheet of green silk.
Sometimes the shore brings souvenirs
from a storm, I sift spoils of sea grass:
find a broken finger of coral, a torn fan,
examine a sponge's hollow throat, watch
a man-of-war die a sapphire in the sand.
Some days there's nothing but sand
quiet as snow, I walk, eyes on the wind
sometimes laden with silver tasting salt,
sometimes still as the sun. Some days
the sun is a dollop of honey and raining
light on the sea glinting diamond dust,
sometimes there are only clouds, clouds—
sometimes solid as continents drifting
across the sky, other times wispy, white
roses that swirl into tigers, into cathedrals,
into hands, and I remember some days

I'm still a boy on this beach, wanting
to catch a seagull, cup a tiny silver fish,
build a perfect sand castle. Some days I am
a teenager blind to death even as I watch
waves seep into nothingness. Most days
I'm a man tired of being a man, sleeping
in the care of dusk's slanted light, or a man
scared of being a man, seeing some god
in the moonlight streaming over the sea.
Some days I imagine myself walking
this shore with feet as worn as driftwood,
old and afraid of my body. Someday,
I suppose I'll return someplace like waves
trickling through the sand, back to sea
without any memory of being, but if
I could choose eternity, it would be here
aging with the moon, enduring in the space
between every grain of sand, in the cusp
of every wave, and every seashell's hollow.  

Richard Blanco is to read one of his poems at the Inauguration of President Obama tomorrow, 21 January.  For more of his on-line poetry, go to http://www.floatingwolfquarterly.com/6/richard-blanco/#0/contents and several other sites listed on his webpage here.

13 January 2013

The Pale King

                     by David Foster Wallace

§ 1

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb's-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother's soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak's thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day.  A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys.  All nodding.  Electric sounds of insects at their business.  Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow.  insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and sxhist and chondrite iron scabs in granite.  Very old land. Looka round you.  The horizon trembling, shapeless.  We are all of us brothers.
       Some crows come overhead then, three or four, not a murder, on the wing, silent with intent, corn-bound for the pasture's wire beyond which one horse smells at the other's behind, the lead horse's tail obligingly lifted. Your shoes' brand incised in the dew.  An alfalfa breeze.  Socks' burrs. Dry scratching inside a culvert.  Rusted wire and tilted posts more a symbol of restraint than a fence per se. No Hunting. The shush of the interstate off past the windbreak.  The pasture's crows standing at angles, turning up patties to get at the worms underneath, the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by the sun all day until hardened, there to stay, tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls that do not close because head never quite touches tail.  Read these.

06 January 2013



                  W.H. Auden

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.