Published on Academy of American Poets (https://poets.org)


Portrait in Nightshade and Delayed Translation

In Saint Petersburg, on an autumn morning,
having been allowed an early entry 
to the Hermitage, my family and I wandered 
the empty hallways and corridors, virtually every space

adorned with famous paintings and artwork.
There must be a term for overloading on art.
One of Caravaggio’s boys smirked at us,
his lips a red that betrayed a sloppy kiss

recently delivered, while across the room
the Virgin looked on with nothing but sorrow.
Even in museums, the drama is staged.
Bored, I left my family and, steered myself,

foolish moth, toward the light coming
from a rotunda. Before me, the empty stairs.
Ready to descend, ready to step outside
into the damp and chilly air, I felt

the centuries-old reflex kick in, that sense 
of being watched. When I turned, I found
no one; instead, I was staring at The Return
of the Prodigal Son. I had studied it, written about it 

as a student. But no amount of study could have 
prepared me for the size of it, the darkness of it. 
There, the son knelt before his father, his dirty foot
left for inspection. Something broke. As clichéd

as it sounds, something inside me broke, and 
as if captured on film, I found myself slowly sinking 
to my knees. The tears began without warning until soon
I was sobbing. What reflex betrays one like this?

What nerve agent did Rembrandt hide
within the dark shades of paint that he used?
What inside me had malfunctioned, had left me
kneeling and sobbing in a museum?

Prosto plakat. Prosto plakat. Osvobodi sebya
said the guard as his hands steadied my shoulders.
He stood there repeating the phrase until 
I stopped crying, until I was able to rise.

I’m not crazy, nor am I a very emotional man.
For most of my life, I have been called, correctly, cold. 
As a student, I catalogued the techniques, carefully
analyzed this painting for a class on the “Dutch Masters.”

Years later, having mustered the courage to tell
this ridiculous story, a friend who spoke Russian
translated the guard’s words for me: “Just cry. Just cry.
Free yourself.” But free myself from what, exactly?

You see, I want this whole thing to be something 
meaningful, my falling to my knees in front of a painting 
by Rembrandt, a painting inspired by a parable 
of forgiveness offered by a father to his lost son.

But nothing meaningful has presented itself. Even now, 
after so much time has passed, I have no clue 
what any of this means. I still haven’t figured out
whether or not I am the lost son or the found.

Credit


Copyright © 2019 by C. Dale Young. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 19, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem


“The basic narrative of this poem is autobiographical. For three years, I worked on an essay about the experience, Stendhal Syndrome, and the ways fathers and sons relate to one another. Despite devoting a significant amount of time to this essay, I could never get it to work well. But the issues stuck with me, and eventually this poem arrived.”
—C. Dale Young

Author


C. Dale Young

C. Dale Young is the author of four poetry collections: The Halo (Four Way Books, 2016), Torn (Four Way Books, 2011), The Second Person (Four Way Books, 2007), and The Day Underneath the Day (Northwestern University Press, 2001).

Date Published: 2019-03-19

Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/portrait-nightshade-and-delayed-translation