An Interrupted Monologue by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1630
Look for me
where I learned to look for myself,
in my ring of attempts
in the light of a sinking candle.
My soul, if you will.
My paintings bear witness to its
long affair with the real.
My flesh preferred games and counterfeits.
The diary I kept in pigments.
This youthful 'me'—one instance—
in a beret and swaggering chain.
The sneer on my lips?
That's Envy spurring Ambition.
The gold of my cheek and chin?
There's the cost of pretence.
So I played to the glass,
desiring the sweets of applause,
every morning delivered my face
to a rasher cause:
van Rijn, the actor, the lover,
the courtier, the beggar,
the burgher, the sinner,
the saint, the seducer…
The more lies I told under cover
the truer they were.
God save me! My pictures, whatever my will,
told the truth to my eyes!
And that was your genius.
My ingenium? Christ's punishing muscle!
God was always at war with my skill.
With your skill?
More likely the Devil.
Oh, my struggles with God
rivalled Jacob's with the angel.
Even as a young man, I knew where I stood:
Here was God. Here was Lucifer.
I prayed to them both, damned both,
took from both when I could.
From Lucifer, his light—ochre bronze and lead-white.
A fine brush for elegance—linen and gold—
His greed to paint glory and splendour in firelight—
But from the Lord God, eyes.
And when He handed me eyes,
I knew I'd never escape them.
I shrunk them, I botched them again and again
in the shade of my hair or my hat.
I surrounded my forehead with shadows,
wore black and more black.
But my eyes still insist that I judge
myself through them—
myself in the changing room of myself,
myself in Act One on the world's stage,
my root nose—lecherous, cruel, pocked, thick,
my smooth skin bared for the plague,
myself who would see myself mocked in old age,
poor, unrepentant, penniless...sick, sick!
Self-portrait as a young man?
Ignorant, egotistical, clever young man.
Who could know then
what I'd be in years to come?
Or what eventually did or must happen?
|Copyright © 2010 by Anne Stevenson. Used by permission of the author. From the author: This poem could not have been written without constant recourse to Simon Schama's magnificent study, Rembrandt's Eyes (London; Alan Lane, Penguin Press, 1999).|