We could say that Rembrandt was a greater painter than Kandinsky. We could not say that Rembrandt was three and a half times better than Kandinsky. . . . We could say, "I have more pain than I had yesterday." When we tried to say, "I have nine dols of pain," we found we were talking nonsense.
- Leshan and Morgenau This is the pain you could fit in a tea ball. This is the pain you could pack in a pipe – a plug of pungent shag-cut pain, a pain to roll between the thumb and the forefinger. Here: this pain you could pour down the city sewers, where it would harden, and swell, and crack those tubes like the flex of a city-wide snake, and still you would wake and there would be more for the pouring. Some pain believes its only true measure is litigation. For other pain, the glint of the lamp in a single called-forth tear is enough. Some pain requires just one mouth, at an ear. Another pain requires the Transatlantic Cable. No ruled lines exist by which to gauge its growth (my pain at three years old. . . at five. . . ) and yet if we follow the chronolinear path of Rembrandt's face self-imaged over forty years - a human cell in the nurturing murk of his signature thick-laid paint – we see the look-by-look development, through early swank and rollick, of a kind of pain so comfortable it's worn, at the last, like a favorite robe, that's frayed by now, and intimate with the frailties of its body, and has an easy fit that the showiest cloak of office never could. In 1658, the gaze is equally into himself, and out to the world-at-large – they've reached a balance of apportioned disappointment – and the meltflesh under the eyes is the sallow of chicken skin, recorded with a faithfulness, with really a painterly tenderness, that lifts this understanding of pain into something so accommodating, "love" is the word that seems to apply to these mournfully basso bloodpan reds and tankard-bottom browns. Today in the library stacks, the open face of a woman above this opened book of Rembrandt reproductions might be something like the moon he looked to, thinking it shared in his sadness. What's her pain? her ohm, her acreage, her baker's dozen, of actual on-your-knees-in-the-abattoir misery? I don't know. I'm not writing this pretending that I know. What I can say is that the chill disc of the stethoscope is known to announce an increment of pain not inappropriate to being blurted forth along the city wall by a corps of regalia' d trumpeters. Who's to say what a "unit" of pain is? On a marshy slope beyond the final outpost, Rembrandt stares at the moon, and stares at the moon, until the background drumming-in of the ocean and the other assorted sounds of the Amsterdam night, and then the Amsterdam dawn, are one with his forlornness, and the mood fades into a next day, and a woman here in Kansas turns to face the sky: she's late for her appointment. She's due for another daily injection of nine c.c.'s of undiluted dol.
Copyright © 2007 by Albert Goldbarth. Reprinted from The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems, 1972-2007 with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota.