Home > Poetry > Late Self-Portrait
Published: Fri Apr 15 2005
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Late Self-Portrait

after Rembrandt

Outside, the city suffocates, infected with death-carts,
_              __              _ash heaps in the yards, beds
_              __              __              _burned or dumped in the canals,
_              _some stained, some with imprints sunk in, like canvases,
_              __              _he thinks, the whole history of art
swept forward on the current of our loss. Contemplative,
_              __              _cold, his vision stepping out
_              __              __              _to the balcony again, Rembrandt sees
_              _nothing that he needs, so retreats back
_              __              _into the castle of his inwardness. If the soul,

he thinks, is a stone dropped in the center of the face,
_              __              _the face sealed back over it, but wavering,
_              __              __              _changed, then this morning he must paint
_              _more distantly, self-love abolished to the province
_              __              _of the weak, the mirror turned away from him,
the canvas laid out on a stretching board, the brush-tip
_              __              _revealing, beneath the splints of the initial lines,
_              __              __              _the eroding cliff-edge of his brow,
_              _the tumbles of hair almost statuary now, gray
_              __              _as chilled breath, each gesture unwrapping

the package of his face, the way he longs to unravel
_              __              _the loose bandages of age, so that for years now,
_              __              __              _watching himself aging in the paint,
_              _he’s felt the two ends of his life advancing toward
_              __              _each other with lances drawn, a confrontation
that ends, always, with Saskia on the bed again, her body thinned
_              __              _to a field the horses of her illness ramble through,
_              __              __              _the smell of snake oil and vinegar
_              _in the room, the soiled sheets, her lungs shredded
_              __              _by that awful bloody cough that even now

seems to echo through the house. When she died,
_              __              _he could not see for days through the dusting
_              __              __              _of his grief, until he revived a painting
_              _he had made of her, humble, unadorned,
_              __              _and smothered her not in the sores that inhaled her
in her final days, but in a velvet skirt and furs,
_              __              _peacock feathers in her hat, her drowned light
_              __              __              _resurrected into pearls, as if death
_              _were an ascension into royalty, or as if to make a gem
_              __              _of her, something he could store in the jewelry box

of memory. Even now he needs just a glimpse
_              __              _of it before he turns away—the dust, light-struck,
_              __              __              _catching in his throat—to crush
_              _the whole scene into the eyes, or so he can place a lock
_              __              _of her in the middle of the canvas, rendered
in a penetrating, almost venomous light, a dab of death
_              __              _in the orpiment like the light from a keyhole,
_              __              __              _as if he might look into her dying as he paints,
_              _like a boy who kneels before a door, mischievous,
_              __              _full of wonder, until that other, colder self

drops the curtain of his face back over her again.

See what's inside AGNI 61

Steve Gehrke won the Philip Levine Prize for his second book, The Pyramids of Malpighi, published by Anhinga Press. His poetry has been published in The Yale Review, Slate, AGNIThe Threepenny Review, Southern Review, The Iowa Review, VQR, and elsewhere. He’s a PhD student at the University of Missouri and poetry editor of The Missouri Review. (updated 2005)

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