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Rembrandt Portraits

by  James Graham

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2003
Word Count: 187

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