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.
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
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