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"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)."
Anne Stevenson

All those Attempts in the Changing Room!

Anne Stevenson
          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.

A candle?

       My soul, if you will.
My paintings bear witness to its
long affair with the real.
My flesh preferred games and counterfeits.

Counterfeits?

       My portraits!
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.

Anne Stevenson

Anne Stevenson

The poet X. J. Kennedy describes her poems as as "achievements in which the angle of vision is particularly distinct. It is very much her own. Reading her, one is seldom if ever reminded of any other poets."

by this poet

poem
You sleep with a dream of summer weather,
wake to the thrum of rain—roped down by rain.
Nothing out there but drop-heavy feathers of grass  
and rainy air. The plastic table on the terrace
has shed three legs on its way to the garden fence.     
The mountains have had the sense to disappear.  
It's the Celtic
poem
That fire in the garden's an illusion—
the double of the fire that cheers this room.
Now standing at the window in between them,
I watch the spiked montbretia suddenly bloom
and guess the glass is telling me a lie. 
But no, the flames are there. I can't deny
the evidence presented to my eye. 
Only to my doubt