Sunday Poetry on Friday and a painting too: Parmigianino and Ashbery

Tracie B and I are headed out to spend the weekend with her family at Canyon Lake — for swimming, relaxing, visiting, and playing Mexican Train. I’m really looking forward to going offline for the next few days and so I thought I’d post Sunday Poetry today (next week, btw, I’ve got a great post on deck on Petrarch’s “generous wine”).

The reflection in the spoon in the photo of the panna cotta in yesterday’s post made me think of the great American poet John Ashbery’s poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in which he writes — ut pictura poësis — about Italian Renaissance master Parmigianino’s wonderful oil on wood. When I was studying poetry as a graduate student at U.C.L.A. and in Italy, I was fascinated by both works and every time I read the poem, I discover a new layer of meaning and semiosis — the “secret knowledge” that a distorted image can often reveal.

From “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”
by John Ashbery

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself from that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers . . .
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,”
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image
Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
Pope Clement and his court were “stupefied”
By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission
That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.

Read the poem in its entirety here.

Eating for Beginners once interviewed John Ashbery. I’m really looking forward to her upcoming posts on her passage on the Queen Mary 2 back from Europe with the German Professor and the Cheese Hater.

Thanks for reading and have a great weekend y’all!