The Artist Signs Her Masterpiece, Immodestly

After Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (Uffizi, 1620)

Because I know what rough work it is to fight off
a man. And though, yes, I learned tenebroso from
Caravaggio, I found the dark on my own. Know too

well if Judith was alone, she’d never be able to claw
her way free. How she and Abra would have to muster
all their strength to keep him still long enough

to labor through muscle and bone. Look at the old
masters try their best to imagine a woman wielding
a sword. Plaited hair just so. She’s disinterested

or dainty, no heft or sweat. As if she were serving
tea—all model and pose. No, my Judith knows
to roll her sleeves up outside the tent. Clenches

a fistful of hair as anchor for what must be done.
Watch the blood arc its way to wrist and breast.
I have thought it all through, you see. The folds

of flesh gathered at each woman’s wrist, the shadows
on his left arm betraying the sword’s cold hilt.
To defeat a man, he must be removed from his body

by the candlelight he meant as seduction. She’s been
to his bed before and takes no pleasure in this.
Some say they know her thoughts by the meat of her

brow. Let them think what they want. I have but one job:
to keep you looking, though I’ve snatched the breath
from your throat. Even the lead white sheets want

to recoil. Forget the blood, forget poor dead Caravaggio.
He only signed one canvas. Lost himself in his own
carbon black backdrop. To call my work imperfect

would simply be a lie. So I drench my brush in
a palette of bone black—femur and horn transformed
by their own long burning—and make one last

insistence. Between this violence and the sleeping
enemies outside, my name rises. Some darknesses
refuse to fade. Ego Artemitia. I made this—I.

 

Related Poems

Everything Is Autobiography and Everything Is a Portrait

Your body in motion calls me to look. You know just how to move. You are determined to move just so. If I could make my image of you do anything, what could I imagine myself becoming? Rather than painting on canvas or sculpting in clay, I am driven to put all these ideas on myself. The artist’s obsession with her subjects is all that I need to drive me to work. In Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of Cleopatra, Cleopatra reclines, heavy-lidded, left hand limp on the pillow above her head. In her right hand, she clutches an asp. Is this the moment before she is bitten or just after? I want to know whether, at the moment of death, that first release will stiffen. In Danaë, her reclining figure echoes Cleopatra’s but Danaë’s left hand is limp with leisure, not surrender, while her right holds a fistful of the gold coins raining down on her naked thighs. Looking at this painting now, I don’t feel leisure. I don’t feel sex. I feel that I might stiffen and not be able to rise. Danaë’s legs crossed at the calves and pressing against the bed cause her back to arch so that the moment of her desire mirrors Cleopatra’s death. The figure retains energy, a tension that defies either weariness or leisure. I like to work from the people that I see and that I want to see. What is fabric to skin, skin to violence? Sometimes I’m concerned with using something that’s in them and which isn’t actually visible. I try to capture the figure where the sun has darkened the skin. But that isn’t the end of the neck. In Judith Slaying Holofernes, the light hits Judith’s neck only at the base. This space between neck and breast forms a plane of skin belted with light and I can’t look away. Not the bloody knife. Not the wide eyes of Holofernes. Nothing can hold my gaze beside this neck. Artemisia has used up her patience on the neck of Judith and left nothing for the head of Holofernes. I think I use up my patience working. I use my patience looking at the skin of Judith and cannot face the dull cheek of Holofernes. Is this personal? What I increasingly feel—that awful phrase “spiritual grandeur”—I feel it like the cap of a jellyfish behind my tongue. I think a skylight must have great spiritual value. Or in Artemisia’s self-portraits, what can we say about self as martyr and self as lute player? Artemisia moves her women to action and I see the painter avenging herself again and again. As I begin to make her portrait, I am conscious of the biographical. I know that I don’t want the body to be read as a violated body. In each of her self-portraits, the same face swivels toward us. And as a martyr, she looks calm; as a lute-player, she suppresses a smile. Through my intimacy with the people I portray, I may have depicted aspects they find intrusive. I have worked to make her appear three-dimensional, rounded. But in this one, done by night under artificial light, the figure looks greenish, bony. A thumb peeks out from between two fingers of her left fist. She dreams. She falls backward. Cloth fills my vision. And I think I’d like to bring, out of the abyss of her figure, all the illumination of arrival. The skin is teeming. The skin has such great spirit. An entire world of light is at play just under the skin. Your calves become Danaë’s calves at leisure, pressed against the grey felt in pleasure, and your bare shoulders could be Judith’s shoulders, broad and reflective under skylights. But as my eyes travel up, I realize you wear the wrinkled, gutted cheek of Holofernes’s half-severed head. Or you wear the same dropped countenance as the one who watches you. This image denies me body in motion, your buoyant bulk; instead, it offers a still life of skin, a cap of flesh traversed by waves of color and revealing the threshold of my own body. If I can catch a glimpse of my face reflected in the facets of the paint, in the mirror of your shoulder, I feel myself lost inside the body that I see. I see myself in this naked body and begin to dress. What I like best is preparing for the party. I often change the fabric completely. Getting ready to go, arriving late, skipping the party, there’s no difference really. It’s only important to do the work. I’m doing what I want completely. This is where I lie.

I Have Lived My Whole Life in a Painting Called Paradise

with the milkweeds splitting at the seams emancipating their seeds
that were once packed in their pods like the wings and hollow bones
of a damp bird held too tightly in a green hand. And the giant jade
moths stuck to the screen door as if glued there. And the gold fields
and stone silos and the fugitive cows known for escaping their borders.

I have lived in a painting called Paradise, and even the bad parts
were beautiful. There are fields of needles arranged into flowers,
their sharp ends meeting at the center, and from a distance the fields
full of needle flowers look blue from their silver reflecting the sky,
or white lilies if the day is overcast, and there in the distance is a meadow

filled with the fluttering skirts of opium poppies. On the hillside
is Moon Cemetery, where the tombstones are hobnailed or prismed
like cut-glass bowls, and some are shaped so precisely like the trunks of trees
that birds build their nests in the crooks of their granite limbs, and some
of the graves are shaped like child-sized tables with stone tablecloths

and tea cups, yes, I have lived in a painting called Paradise.
The hollyhocks loom like grandfathers with red pocket watches,
and off in the distance the water is ink and the ships are white paper
with scribblings of poems and musical notations on their sides.
There are rabbits: mink-colored ones and rabbits that are mystics

humped like haystacks, and at Moon Cemetery it’s an everyday event
to see the dead rise from their graves, as glittering as they were in life,
to once more pick up the plow or the pen or the axe or the spoon
or the brush or the bowl, for it is a cemetery named after a moon
and moons never stay put. There are bees in the air flying off

to build honeycombs with pollen heavy on their back legs,
and in the air, birds of every ilk, the gray kind that feed from the ground,
and the ones that scream to announce themselves, and the ravens
who feed on the rabbits until their black feathers are edged
in gold, and in the air also are little gods and devils trying out their wings,

some flying, some failing and making a little cream-colored blip
in the sea, yes, all of my life I have lived in a painting called Paradise
with its frame of black varnish and gold leaf, and I am told some girls
slide their fingers over the frame and feel the air outside of it,
and some even climb over the edge and plummet into whatever

is beyond it. Some say it is hell, and some say just another, bolder
paradise, and some say a dark wilderness, and some say just an unswept
museum or library floor, and some say a long-lost love waits there
wearing bloody riding clothes, returned from war, and some say
freedom, which is a word that tastes strange, like a green plum.

The First Person Who Will Live to Be One Hundred and Fifty Years Old Has Already Been Born

[For Petra]

Scientists say the average human
life gets three months longer every year.
By this math, death will be optional. Like a tie
or dessert or suffering. My mother asks
whether I’d want to live forever.
“I’d get bored,” I tell her. “But,” she says,
“there’s so much to do,” meaning
she believes there’s much she hasn’t done.
Thirty years ago she was the age I am now
but, unlike me, too industrious to think about
birds disappeared by rain. If only we had more
time or enough money to be kept on ice
until such a time science could bring us back.
Of late my mother has begun to think life
short-lived. I’m too young to convince her
otherwise. The one and only occasion
I was in the same room as the Mona Lisa,
it was encased in glass behind what I imagine
were velvet ropes. There’s far less between
ourselves and oblivion—skin that often defeats
its very purpose. Or maybe its purpose
isn’t protection at all, but rather to provide
a place, similar to a doctor’s waiting room,
in which to sit until our names are called.
Hold your questions until the end.
Mother, measure my wide-open arms—
we still have this much time to kill.