The Wedding Portrait
–“The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait” Van Eyck (1434)
In the painting the couple stands with their hands
touching and enough apart to notice the shaggy gray dog
smiling between them. The woman’s shoes set on the floor
next to the man are shackles. The bed is a burgundy field,
her shadow thrown against it, waiting to be grazed.
A mirror on the wall stands between them, catching
what? Everyone talks about the mirror; how perfectly
it holds our attention, how novel to imagine oneself
seeing and being seen by the painting and beyond.
Others mention the lush emerald dress she wears,
how the plump and folded front makes her look pregnant.
But she is waiting to be done. She is not holding anything
inside her. What you might miss is the window, barely there,
how it beckons inward and outward and how the rectangular
hint of sky it dares emit is enough to leave one wanting more:
more lit cobalt refracting pleasures beyond, more sounds
of children playing in a market below, the day thriving
despite them. There are a few oranges that linger mute
as fruit on a table just below the window, and there is one
on the sill, that rests alone. The orange of its skin
nearly glowing, absorbing the ray of light allowed in,
as if want finds its place between two opposites.
What does it feel like to be them? Sufferers of
delay, what lives between the orange and window
but a desire to be used and useful? This thought is
unbearable to the one looking, who wants as much.
But what else would there be in seeing and being seen
except to endure and enjoy refusal––this not-enough
light––this quashing of succulence, joy withholding
joy––so long as it is kept from vanishing?
I entered the world and she wanted nothing
but to be rid of me. It’s a kind of mourning,
like the atmosphere in Paris that turned from
sterling to oyster the day I leaned out her window
and watched the nearby market fill with vendors
selling fruit, vegetables, fish. I had never seen
the ocean, but the smell of salt rising from stands
filled my lungs with longing. I imagined the ocean
as wild and full of hate. By day’s end, all was
dismantled, crates emptied, stacked, shreds left
to rot or scavenge. The homeless––some of them
mothers––gleaned scraps of fish head, parsley,
bruised tomatoes, shrimp bits––stuffing what
they could into plastic bags. I spit on their heads
like it was a form of speech. Most didn’t notice,
but some looked up and shook their fists.
I was happy to be part of some other mother’s
story besides the one my own refused to tell.
My mother rarely spoke. Mostly she studied
her face before a pink vanity that magnified
her silver eyes. Every day she plucked her brows
to a tense, drawn arc; pouted her lips into
a wounded look copied from French films.
I imitated her. Already I saw the world as full
of illusions. Outside her window the sky
glowered and gleamed like the ocean
she took me to see for the first time. I wanted
to swim but couldn’t. A rip tide was close enough
to kill. So I joined a crowd that pointed to
a woman running into the waves to save
a stranded girl. We watched them fight against
the current, whorls and funnels dragging their
bodies out. The girl was saved but the tides
suddenly turned, pulling the woman farther
out when the crowd gasped: Oh no! It’s her
mother! And it was: it was the girl’s mother.
We stood there, dumb, watched the woman
wave, bob, and drown. Then the sun came
back, turning every surface into a brightness
so blanched the air became the color of milk:
a thick, white silence, like nothing left to say,
nowhere else to go. Today, I am a room,
quiet as the table on which I write. There is
no ocean here. Outside my window is a broad
sky, a stand of birch that sways. Shafts of sun
float smoke that rises into leaves. Am I alone?
I hear a voice cry out a name, but it’s not
for me. Who wants to know? There is a mother
somewhere, but we swim past each other,
toward the surface of things, as if to breathe.