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Late Self-Portrait

by Steve Gehrke


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.

 

Steve Gehrke’s second book, The Pyramids of Malpighi, won the Philip Levine Prize and was published by Anhinga Press. New poems are forthcoming at The Yale Review, Slate, The Threepenny Review, Southern Review, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. He’s a PhD student at the University of Missouri and poetry editor of The Missouri Review. (4/2005)


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