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.
Copyright © 2020 by Danielle DeTiberus. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 7, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
About this Poem
“This is from a series of poems about the artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s work and life. Her sexual assault and subsequent trial surely informed her work, and this poem owes a lot of its knowledge from two sources: the transcripts of that trial published in full in Mary D. Garrard’s comprehensive tome about the artist, and from Judith W. Mann’s essay ‘Identity Signs: Meanings And Methods in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Signatures,’ which helped me move beyond my initial questions about what happens to art when women are excluded or about how I might explore my own trauma through persona. In Judith Beheading Holofernes, I see the necessity of women telling their own stories. The artist’s signature is as sure and insistent as Judith’s sword; she reclaims her agency through making and naming. Ultimately, then, this poem is an ode to survivors and to Gentileschi’s exquisitely manicured middle finger to the idea that she could be erased or silenced.” —Danielle DeTiberus
Danielle DeTiberus was a finalist for Black Lawrence Press’ 2018 Hudson Prize. She teaches creative writing at the Charleston School of the Arts.
Date Published: 2020-01-07
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/artist-signs-her-masterpiece-immodestly