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Rembrandt Portraits

by James Graham 

Posted: 13 February 2003
Word Count: 187

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It doesn't seem polite to look at them; and yet
you want to say, 'Excuse me', touch an earring,
see it swing. You wonder if they see you; think of that
old chestnut: eyes that follow you about the room.

Even the merchant, trying to efface himself
in power-coat and sash: his eyes
look out as well as in, have seen much
and are prepared for more. These Rembrandts

are a conjurer's work. Dressed up in lace
and serge and polished leather,
they gather here, this company of spooks.
Where are the canapes, the wine, the servants?
The night-watch picture hyphenates

the captain's talk; he will, he must
go on, and the drummer, and the man in red,
must get on with their work. These are not such
as have their hearts cut out by the embalmer's man;
their brains seem still beneath their skulls.

For all that, it's a scene of death: not all
their muscle, tinted flesh and fluid eyes
can animate the people in this room; it is
a cruel irony. Even so: as we, discourteous
gawpers, whisperers, turn away, we choose
to make believe that, as night comes, the frame
will empty, and the captain and his men
will go upon their watch.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 2001

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Comments by other Members

Adam at 16:16 on 26 March 2003  Report this post
I really like this poem. The basic premiss reminded me a little of 'An Ode to a Grecian Urn'. However, you seem to go beyond this and not only explore the immortality of art, but the lives of the portraits within. I particularly like the structure and style: it seems to imply a fluidity which is reflected by the characters trapped in the frames. Nice ending, too. Well done!

paul53 at 10:24 on 04 May 2003  Report this post
I really like this. It evoked the time I stood in Kenwood House, staring at one of Rembrandt's self portraits for so long I was told to move on. Bold and effective use of colons and semi-colons.

James Graham at 18:45 on 07 May 2003  Report this post
Many thanks for positive comments. I wonder, though, whether the poem would mean as much to someone who'd not seen the picture? I once wrote a poem about the Shostakovich 8th Symphony, but it was omitted from my book because the editor said it could appeal only to someone familiar with the music.


Ticonderoga at 21:51 on 27 October 2003  Report this post

James, although I know and love, and have seen 'in the flesh', a great number of Rembrandt's paintings and sketches, had I not, this would make me want to! So few visual artists give the viewer the impression of life trapped within the canvas which might,as in that lovely old film with Alan Badel, come out for a nocturnal foray in to the 'real' world; even Vermeer, astonishing though his work is, 'freezes' the moment, but, if you get up close to a Rembrandt canvas, as Paul53 describes, and look at it from the side, the layering of paint makes it look as though the figures and faces are straining to escape! The same effect, in a more abstract way, is created by Turner, where energy itself seems struggling for release. Oh, blah, blah.....all that waffle simply means that, yes, your poem would encourage people to seek out the paintings!



PantsonFire at 20:33 on 31 May 2006  Report this post
This is really good thanks

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