Seeing All The Vermeers Poem by Alfred Corn

Seeing All The Vermeers

Rating: 5.0

Met Museum, 1965, the first
I'll see, his Young Woman Sleeping.
Stage right, bright-threaded carpet flung over the table
where a plate of apples, crumpled napkin
and drained wineglass abut the recapped pitcher.
Propped by one hand, her leaning drowse,
behind which, a door opens on the dream, dim, bare
but for a console and framed mirror—or a painting
too shadowed to make out. Next to it,
(certitude) one window, shuttered for the duration....

That dream also timed me out, a lull in the boomeranging
hubbub of the staggering city I'd just moved to.


In the Frick's Officer and Laughing Girl, spring sunshine
entered left, partly blocked by the noncom suitor's hat-brim,
wide, dark as seduction, conquest. A map dotted with schooners
backed her fresh elations, the glass winking at them both.... He'd see
why, in a later day, crewcut recruits were shipping out to Nam;
and she, why the student left was up in arms against the war.


In ‘67, Ann and I spent a graduate year in Paris;
and lived in the Louvre, too, along with The Lacemaker—
self-effacing, monumental, an artisan
whose patience matched the painter's, inscribed
in tangling skeins of scarlet oil against an indigo
silk cushion. Silent excruciation
among toy spools framed the bald paradox
termed "women's work,' disgracing anything less
than entire devotion to labor entered into. (That May,
a million demonstrators marched up the Champs Elysées.)


From there to Amsterdam and The Little Street,
where innate civility distilled a local cordial, free
from upheaval, from dearth and opulence, each brick
distinct, their collectivity made credible
by a chalky varicosis that riddled foreground façades.
A century's successive mortars filled those cracks,
nor will the figures down on hands and knees in the foreground
stand up again till they've replaced that broken tile.

The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter calmed misgivings
with the global trust that swelled her body, a soft counterweight
to expeditions tracked across the weathered map behind.
A new-found Eden, festooned with portents, history
piloting ship and cargo across the wrinkling sea.

The Maidservant Pouring Milk's power to see
in threadbare clothes and plain features a meek radiance
made of caritas, doesn't need words... But since I do,
call her a velvet motet developed in blue, in scaled-down
yellow-green that I could hear, the resonant stillness
centered on movement's figment, cream paint paying out
a corded rivulet at the cruse's lip. Crusty loaves, nail-holes
in plaster, and knuckles roughened by scalds and scrubs
witnessed to the daily immolation, performed as first light
tolled matins from a dutch-gold vessel hooked to the wall.


By train to Den Haag, to see the View of Delft's ink-black
medieval walls and bridge, barges anchored on a satin
water more pensive than the clouded blue above,
where one tall steeple took its accolade of sun.
(Proust's "patch of yellow wall" I couldn't find, though.)

The Girl in a Turban looked like Anne Wiazemsky,
Godard's new partner, whom we'd seen in his latest film.
Liquid eyes, half-parted lips, a brushstroke ancillary
to fable highlighting the weighty pearl at her earlobe,
her "Turkish" costume stage-worthy, if she ever chose to act.


By then it was set: No matter how many years or flights
it took, I'd see all of Vermeer—which helps explain
the Vienna stop we made that spring, and our instant beeline
to An Artist in His Studio (called, today, The Allegory of Fame).
What to make of the Artist's bloomers, outmoded even then—

and why would his model hold book and clarion, standing
before the mapped Low Countries? If that anesthetized mask
on the table near her denied the chandelier its candles,
then who hung a tapestried curtain in the left foreground?

Vermeer; but his meaning subverts comment, always
less hypnotic than the surface itself, a luminous
glaze adhering to receding frames in series,
chromatic theaters for featured roles that also kindle
fervor in their supporting actor, the secret soul.


Strike me dumb on first seeing The Astronomer
in Guy de Rothschild's study—well, a photograph of it
in an ‘80s coffee-table book, The Great Houses
of Paris. Not long after, thanks to philanthropy
and the tax structure, it devolved upon the state.
Semester break that winter, McC. and I jetted to France,
entered the Louvre's new glass pyramid and fought
dense crowds to where he hung, The Lacemaker's late consort.
In a brown studio, his fingers reading the globe,
he sat, immovably dutiful to calculations
devised ad hoc to safecrack the star-studded zodiac.


I was one of the visitors tiptoeing
through Isabella Gardner's house in Boston
decades before the heist, which to this day
remains unsolved. But balance one instance
of good luck against a trip made to Ireland
in ‘86, missing by only a few months
the Beit Collection's Lady Writing a Letter.
Paid so often now, the compliment of theft
puts a keen edge on our art pilgrimages:
The icon may be gone when you arrive.

That fall, I lived in London's Camden Town,
writing on... call them stateside topics; and soon
tubed up to Kenwood House, relieved to find
their prime collectible unstolen—its potential
as ecphrastic plunder not apparent at the time.
(A sonnet, no less, completed earlier in New Haven,
qualified me for that satire on the Connecticut bard
besotted with Vermeer. Still, subjects could be barred
in advance only if they and poems were the same gadget.
Disbelief, you're suspended, even for the standard
gloat over shots knocked back at the Cedar Tavern,
ca. 1950, with Pollock and de Kooning.)

Here then was Kenwood's Lady with Guitar, in corkscrew
curls, lemon jacket trimmed with ermine, lounging
like some hippie denizen of Washington Square,
strumming for the nth time his secondhand Dylan...
Maybe they heard her, too, the National Gallery's
paired women portraits, each playing a virginal,
both in silk dresses, one seated, one standing—
Profane and Sacred Love, if the old allegory fits.

A trip from London to Edinburgh produced, beyond
the classic-Gothic limestone city grimed with soot,
an early Christ in the House of Mary and Martha,
conceived before the painter's parables began unfolding
at home in Delft. Still, Martha's proffered pannier is as real
as the bread it holds, and Jesus' open hand, rendered
against clean table linen, as strong and solid as Vermeer's.


A chill, damp March in Dresden with Chris.
We'd begun with the Berlin State Museum's holdings
and then trained down on our way to Prague.
The Gemäldegalerie, quiet as a church, listened
while beads of tarnished rain pelted the skylights.
Works known from reproductions offered themselves
to the gray ambient, visibly conscious
of having survived Allied firebombs fifty years
earlier and a postwar Ice Age that slammed home,
then froze every bolt in the Eastern sector.
Young Vermeer's The Procuress makes love for sale
push beyond the sour analogue
of art-as-commerce into distinct portraits,
comedic types you have and haven't seen before
caught up in cheerful barter while wine flows
at a balustrade draped with carpet and a fur cape.
The client's left hand could have been mine,
weighing down a pretty shoulder (and the bodice),
but not the right, poised to let fall a coin
into her open palm. Men's hunger for sex
and poverty's for comforts—an old story,
mean or tragic, and never finally resolved.


Having missed Her Majesty's The Music Lesson, lent
over the years to several exhibitions, guess who danced
when told that it would grace the show to end all shows
scheduled in Washington, the fall of ‘95.
And other hard-to-sees from Brunswick and Frankfurt—
jubilation—were included also, plus
apprentice works on pagan or religious themes.
Long caterpillar of a line, composed of hundreds
come to worship art and its obsessive love of life.
An hour's wait on aching legs, and in we go:
The Geographer, taking his place by The Astronomer;
Ireland's letter-writer, look, recaptured, and now restored
to the public; a View of Delft, cleaned so thoroughly
you couldn't miss that patch of yellow—not a wall,
Proust got it wrong, instead, a roof... Sheltering involuntary
memories of countless choked-up viewers,
whose gazes added one more laminate of homage
to a surface charged with how many hundred thousands now.

From the permanent collection—why?—I saw as though
I never had the Woman Weighing Gold, some twenty years
(gone, and still here) since that first visit (Walter with me)
to the National Gallery. By word-origin Galilees,
international through their holdings, these cathedrals
of art draw in the faithful that faith in art has summoned
for mutual appraisal, what we are seen in what we see.

Hence the scales at center canvas Vermeer suspended
from her fine-boned hand, the face all understanding
and, so, forgiving all. Nevertheless, the great maternal
judge weighs one gold (a ring? a coin?) against a smaller gold,
in gloom as dark as the Day of Wrath, whose millennial
trumpet tears away a final veil.
So human error
will yield, her calm demeanor says, to Pax caelestis
and dawn break forth in perpetual light transforming
breath, strife, treasure, theft, love, and the end of love,
into its own substance—strong, bright beam of Libra rising
step by step up the scale to Eden and a countenance
the soul, made visible, is now accorded grace to see.

Around us, heads bent toward a morning vintaged
more than three hundred years ago. Manifold delight
wearing Nikes, Levi's, parkas; students, grizzled veterans,
young mothers, teachers, painters—awestruck, whispering
Heavens! Just look at that!—his New World public.

Norma Mahns 11 June 2023

I enjoyed... in the entirety, especially the last four words.

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