Tuesday Poem: ‘Portrait of the artist at his easel’ by Sam Searle

Portrait of the artist at his easel

She came to see Vermeers. They make sense here,
a watery city, so many types of blue
to be. She stayed on for still life,
a lemon losing peel in curls, a bird,
a pheasant, say, odd-angled neck in death.
The decay, it gets to her, she dreams herself
a cage and wakes up crooked. But she still
loves the light on that glass of wine, how it
refracts and shatters. Her pale hand takes notes,
chiaroscuro in a leather book,
a method for blue on a ticket back.
She moves to portraits, sees me, her knees pressing
the rope. A guard must take her arm, must say
step away. So she sits to watch me paint,
her eyes half-shut with hashish thoughts of what
I do not know. Each day she comes to me
and when she draws my fingertips, or what
I used to call my fingertips, they twitch.
How I tire of this brush, this easel empty
as it always was, my self trapped in this
play of paint and props. I am the light
I once created, placed on canvas, all eyes
drawn to me, as I planned that they would be.
I loved that light, was famous for that light.
I want to live forever, I once thought.
But now I seek the shadows, oily dark,
the quiet. I want to not be looked at.
She walks towards me, watching the guard
next door, a group tour taking up his time.
Her touch is blackness. I am pulled, condensed,
and flow along her arm, extending
in all directions, across skin, down spine
to her toes. She sighs, walks away. I go
with her, black high-heeled boots clacking the floor,
retrieve the cloakroom tag from the soft warm
inside of a velvet jacket. It’s mine—
this hand, pocketed, its solidity
astonishing me.

Sam Searle lives in Melbourne and works as a librarian at Monash University. Her poetry has appeared in Blackmail Press, Hue & Cry, and The Lumière Reader. This poem appeared in Blue Dog: Australian Poetry, No. 17 (June 2010). Sam said that this poem was largely written while doing the Iowa Workshop at the IIML in 2008, and represents her first attempt at working with iambic pentameter.

Sam’s use of iambic pentameter works on a series of levels. As well as drawing the reader through the poem, the traditional form speaks to Vermeer’s traditional domestic portraits. The form also gives the poem a feeling of tightness and constraint, just as the narrator is initially bound within his own portrait. The poem breaks the form on the last line when the narrator once again feels his own hand. It is hard to capture the emotion of a piece of art in poetry without relying on description. This poem deftly conjures the light and dark of Vermeer’s works by protraying the artist’s own light and dark emotions.

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5 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem: ‘Portrait of the artist at his easel’ by Sam Searle

  1. What a lovely piece of writing, brilliant with all the light in Vermeer, the subjects of the other Dutch Renaissance painters, maybe any artist’s wish for immortality turned to the paralysis of falling in love, of wishing to step away from rendering still lifes for entering real life and in remembering the feel of flesh, his own, to touch the flesh of another.

  2. This is a beautiful piece of poetry, Sarah. The movement from embodying light to desiring the shadows moves me. And, of course, the break of form at the culmination of the poem sits with such force. Thanks for introducing me to Sam’s work!

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