30 December 2009

Artemisia Gentileschi

When I did my reading at the Poetry Society in October, the last poem I read was 'Artemisia Gentileschi'. It's a long poem, and each section refers to a painting of hers - in describing it, she's kind of telling the story of her life. When I wrote it I hoped that the reader would be able to imagine the paintings in their mind from what I described - at least enough for the poem to work. And I think people can, but the twice I've performed this with slides of the paintings projected behind me, I've got a really good reaction.

Recently I got an email from an English lecturer from Vienna who is going to be teaching a course about fictional biographies. She'd come across a mention of 'Artemisia Gentileschi' and wanted to know where she could get her hands on it. That course seemed right up my poetic alley, so I sent her my book. Students in Vienna might be studying my work!

Both of these things had led me to think that it might be helpful to link the paintings with the poem. Rather than breaching anyone's copyright by including the images on this blog, I'm going to link the titles of sections to the painting it refers to. Hopefully it will add a new element to the poem. (Links should open in a new tab or window.)

Artemisia Gentileschi, 1593–circa 1642

Woman Playing a Lute, circa 1610

She seems naïve to me now
holding the lute
across her body
as she looks
towards the sky
My father taught
me to paint
‘You are very precocious’
he said, ‘for a girl’
but he thought some extra
tuition in technique
would be beneficial
And Tassi certainly taught me
I learned my lesson well

Susanna and the Elders, 1610

Susanna is a serpentine S
as she twists away
from the gaze
from the faces of the
lechers, one old
one younger
They taunt her, they
whisper as they refuse
to share the paints, as they
leave her only the worst brushes
‘Hey girl,’ they say, ‘I’d like
to get a lick of you’
‘She can’t be a virgin
just look at that mouth’
The other men, the judges
heard evidence that
indeed I was a virgin
until, by force
and I swore to it as they tightened
the thumbscrews
Tassi was out of jail
by the next time it rained

Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612–1613

Your eye is drawn
to the place where their arms
all meet
Holofernes, the tyrant
lies back, tangled
in the sheet while
Judith, with calm
precision, slices off
his head
Abra, her maid, has the trace
of a smile
as she holds him down
The blood on the bedclothes
is the same colour
as Abra’s dress
You may note
that Holofernes
bears a striking resemblance
to Tassi

Judith and Her Maidservant, circa 1613–1614

Judith and Abra
have done their deed
and changed their clothes
Tassi’s head
is in a basket, his blood leaks
between the weaving – a detail
of which I am especially proud
Judith and Abra
are escaping
the enemy camp, but
hearing a sound
they look back, out of the painting
to the right
The sword is flung
casually over my shoulder
They will escape

Jael and Sisera, 1620

Jael was a heroine
of the Israelites
a woman of action
She isn’t afraid
of getting her hands dirty
getting a bit of blood
on her saffron dress
Sisera appears to be asleep
almost curled
on her lap, his head resting
on his arm
Jael’s hammer almost
disappears at the top
of the canvas, her arm stretched up
and the tent peg resting
below his right ear
The pounding is about to begin

Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1620

There is more force
this time
and the blood spurts
like a fountain, staining
the sheets
I admit
I still have some issues

Lucretia, circa 1621

Lucretia was a woman of honour
a virtuous wife
who couldn’t bear the shame
She kneels on the bed
her knee and shoulder
catching the light
She looks skyward, like
the lute player, but she contemplates
not God but her dagger, glinting
in the shadows, that she holds
in her left hand
She grasps her tempting breast
and imagines plunging
the knife through and into
her heart, over and over
again and again
until she is split
with the pain, she’ll kick
and bite and bloody
the bedclothes, cry
for it to stop stop
stop and then
in the next moment she will not
as the story would have you believe
make herself a victim
again – instead she will throw down the blade
draw her petticoat closed
put on her dress
and go back
to her studio

Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1630

My shoulder
in my favourite green gown
protrudes from the picture plane
towards you
I am paused, caught
in the act of painting
I am both artist and model
both creator and muse
a perfect synthesis
Igegno – a genius light
strikes my forehead
My painterly arm
is strong

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