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Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Written by: John Ashbery | Biography
 | Quotes (63) |
 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 .
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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.
But there is in that gaze a combination Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain.
The pity of it smarts, Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul, Has no secret, is small, and it fits Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation (From the Latin speculum, mirror): They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.
We see only postures of the dream, Riders of the motion that swings the face Into view under evening skies, with no False disarray as proof of authenticity.
But it is life englobed.
One would like to stick one's hand Out of the globe, but its dimension, What carries it, will not allow it.
No doubt it is this, not the reflex To hide something, which makes the hand loom large As it retreats slightly.
There is no way To build it flat like a section of wall: It must join the segment of a circle, Roving back to the body of which it seems So unlikely a part, to fence in and shore up the face On which the effort of this condition reads Like a pinpoint of a smile, a spark Or star one is not sure of having seen As darkness resumes.
A perverse light whose Imperative of subtlety dooms in advance its Conceit to light up: unimportant but meant.
Francesco, your hand is big enough To wreck the sphere, and too big, One would think, to weave delicate meshes That only argue its further detention.
(Big, but not coarse, merely on another scale, Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom In relation to the tiny, self-important ship On the surface.
) But your eyes proclaim That everything is surface.
The surface is what's there And nothing can exist except what's there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves, And the window doesn't matter much, or that Sliver of window or mirror on the right, even As a gauge of the weather, which in French is Le temps, the word for time, and which Follows a course wherein changes are merely Features of the whole.
The whole is stable within Instability, a globe like ours, resting On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball Secure on its jet of water.
And just as there are no words for the surface, that is, No words to say what it really is, that it is not Superficial but a visible core, then there is No way out of the problem of pathos vs.
experience.
You will stay on, restive, serene in Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning But which holds something of both in pure Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything.
The balloon pops, the attention Turns dully away.
Clouds In the puddle stir up into sawtoothed fragments.
I think of the friends Who came to see me, of what yesterday Was like.
A peculiar slant Of memory that intrudes on the dreaming model In the silence of the studio as he considers Lifting the pencil to the self-portrait.
How many people came and stayed a certain time, Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you Like light behind windblown fog and sand, Filtered and influenced by it, until no part Remains that is surely you.
Those voices in the dusk Have told you all and still the tale goes on In the form of memories deposited in irregular Clumps of crystals.
Whose curved hand controls, Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds Like the last stubborn leaves ripped From wet branches? I see in this only the chaos Of your round mirror which organizes everything Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty, Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
I feel the carousel starting slowly And going faster and faster: desk, papers, books, Photographs of friends, the window and the trees Merging in one neutral band that surrounds Me on all sides, everywhere I look.
And I cannot explain the action of leveling, Why it should all boil down to one Uniform substance, a magma of interiors.
My guide in these matters is your self, Firm, oblique, accepting everything with the same Wraith of a smile, and as time speeds up so that it is soon Much later, I can know only the straight way out, The distance between us.
Long ago The strewn evidence meant something, The small accidents and pleasures Of the day as it moved gracelessly on, A housewife doing chores.
Impossible now To restore those properties in the silver blur that is The record of what you accomplished by sitting down "With great art to copy all that you saw in the glass" So as to perfect and rule out the extraneous Forever.
In the circle of your intentions certain spars Remain that perpetuate the enchantment of self with self: Eyebeams, muslin, coral.
It doesn't matter Because these are things as they are today Before one's shadow ever grew Out of the field into thoughts of tomorrow.
Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted, Desolate, reluctant as any landscape To yield what are laws of perspective After all only to the painter's deep Mistrust, a weak instrument though Necessary.
Of course some things Are possible, it knows, but it doesn't know Which ones.
Some day we will try To do as many things as are possible And perhaps we shall succeed at a handful Of them, but this will not have anything To do with what is promised today, our Landscape sweeping out from us to disappear On the horizon.
Today enough of a cover burnishes To keep the supposition of promises together In one piece of surface, letting one ramble Back home from them so that these Even stronger possibilities can remain Whole without being tested.
Actually The skin of the bubble-chamber's as tough as Reptile eggs; everything gets "programmed" there In due course: more keeps getting included Without adding to the sum, and just as one Gets accustomed to a noise that Kept one awake but now no longer does, So the room contains this flow like an hourglass Without varying in climate or quality (Except perhaps to brighten bleakly and almost Invisibly, in a focus sharpening toward death--more Of this later).
What should be the vacuum of a dream Becomes continually replete as the source of dreams Is being tapped so that this one dream May wax, flourish like a cabbage rose, Defying sumptuary laws, leaving us To awake and try to begin living in what Has now become a slum.
Sydney Freedberg in his Parmigianino says of it: "Realism in this portrait No longer produces and objective truth, but a bizarria .
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However its distortion does not create A feeling of disharmony .
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The forms retain A strong measure of ideal beauty," because Fed by our dreams, so inconsequential until one day We notice the hole they left.
Now their importance If not their meaning is plain.
They were to nourish A dream which includes them all, as they are Finally reversed in the accumulating mirror.
They seemed strange because we couldn't actually see them.
And we realize this only at a point where they lapse Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape.
The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion.
Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed? Something like living occurs, a movement Out of the dream into its codification.
As I start to forget it It presents its stereotype again But it is an unfamiliar stereotype, the face Riding at anchor, issued from hazards, soon To accost others, "rather angel than man" (Vasari).
Perhaps an angel looks like everything We have forgotten, I mean forgotten Things that don't seem familiar when We meet them again, lost beyond telling, Which were ours once.
This would be the point Of invading the privacy of this man who "Dabbled in alchemy, but whose wish Here was not to examine the subtleties of art In a detached, scientific spirit: he wished through them To impart the sense of novelty and amazement to the spectator" (Freedberg).
Later portraits such as the Uffizi "Gentleman," the Borghese "Young Prelate" and The Naples "Antea" issue from Mannerist Tensions, but here, as Freedberg points out, The surprise, the tension are in the concept Rather than its realization.
The consonance of the High Renaissance Is present, though distorted by the mirror.
What is novel is the extreme care in rendering The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface (It is the first mirror portrait), So that you could be fooled for a moment Before you realize the reflection Isn't yours.
You feel then like one of those Hoffmann characters who have been deprived Of a reflection, except that the whole of me Is seen to be supplanted by the strict Otherness of the painter in his Other room.
We have surprised him At work, but no, he has surprised us As he works.
The picture is almost finished, The surprise almost over, as when one looks out, Startled by a snowfall which even now is Ending in specks and sparkles of snow.
It happened while you were inside, asleep, And there is no reason why you should have Been awake for it, except that the day Is ending and it will be hard for you To get to sleep tonight, at least until late.
The shadow of the city injects its own Urgency: Rome where Francesco Was at work during the Sack: his inventions Amazed the soldiers who burst in on him; They decided to spare his life, but he left soon after; Vienna where the painting is today, where I saw it with Pierre in the summer of 1959; New York Where I am now, which is a logarithm Of other cities.
Our landscape Is alive with filiations, shuttlings; Business is carried on by look, gesture, Hearsay.
It is another life to the city, The backing of the looking glass of the Unidentified but precisely sketched studio.
It wants To siphon off the life of the studio, deflate Its mapped space to enactments, island it.
That operation has been temporarily stalled But something new is on the way, a new preciosity In the wind.
Can you stand it, Francesco? Are you strong enough for it? This wind brings what it knows not, is Self--propelled, blind, has no notion Of itself.
It is inertia that once Acknowledged saps all activity, secret or public: Whispers of the word that can't be understood But can be felt, a chill, a blight Moving outward along the capes and peninsulas Of your nervures and so to the archipelagoes And to the bathed, aired secrecy of the open sea.
This is its negative side.
Its positive side is Making you notice life and the stresses That only seemed to go away, but now, As this new mode questions, are seen to be Hastening out of style.
If they are to become classics They must decide which side they are on.
Their reticence has undermined The urban scenery, made its ambiguities Look willful and tired, the games of an old man.
What we need now is this unlikely Challenger pounding on the gates of an amazed Castle.
Your argument, Francesco, Had begun to grow stale as no answer Or answers were forthcoming.
If it dissolves now Into dust, that only means its time had come Some time ago, but look now, and listen: It may be that another life is stocked there In recesses no one knew of; that it, Not we, are the change; that we are in fact it If we could get back to it, relive some of the way It looked, turn our faces to the globe as it sets And still be coming out all right: Nerves normal, breath normal.
Since it is a metaphor Made to include us, we are a part of it and Can live in it as in fact we have done, Only leaving our minds bare for questioning We now see will not take place at random But in an orderly way that means to menace Nobody--the normal way things are done, Like the concentric growing up of days Around a life: correctly, if you think about it.
A breeze like the turning of a page Brings back your face: the moment Takes such a big bite out of the haze Of pleasant intuition it comes after.
The locking into place is "death itself," As Berg said of a phrase in Mahler's Ninth; Or, to quote Imogen in Cymbeline, "There cannot Be a pinch in death more sharp than this," for, Though only exercise or tactic, it carries The momentum of a conviction that had been building.
Mere forgetfulness cannot remove it Nor wishing bring it back, as long as it remains The white precipitate of its dream In the climate of sighs flung across our world, A cloth over a birdcage.
But it is certain that What is beautiful seems so only in relation to a specific Life, experienced or not, channeled into some form Steeped in the nostalgia of a collective past.
The light sinks today with an enthusiasm I have known elsewhere, and known why It seemed meaningful, that others felt this way Years ago.
I go on consulting This mirror that is no longer mine For as much brisk vacancy as is to be My portion this time.
And the vase is always full Because there is only just so much room And it accommodates everything.
The sample One sees is not to be taken as Merely that, but as everything as it May be imagined outside time--not as a gesture But as all, in the refined, assimilable state.
But what is this universe the porch of As it veers in and out, back and forth, Refusing to surround us and still the only Thing we can see? Love once Tipped the scales but now is shadowed, invisible, Though mysteriously present, around somewhere.
But we know it cannot be sandwiched Between two adjacent moments, that its windings Lead nowhere except to further tributaries And that these empty themselves into a vague Sense of something that can never be known Even though it seems likely that each of us Knows what it is and is capable of Communicating it to the other.
But the look Some wear as a sign makes one want to Push forward ignoring the apparent NaÏveté of the attempt, not caring That no one is listening, since the light Has been lit once and for all in their eyes And is present, unimpaired, a permanent anomaly, Awake and silent.
On the surface of it There seems no special reason why that light Should be focused by love, or why The city falling with its beautiful suburbs Into space always less clear, less defined, Should read as the support of its progress, The easel upon which the drama unfolded To its own satisfaction and to the end Of our dreaming, as we had never imagined It would end, in worn daylight with the painted Promise showing through as a gage, a bond.
This nondescript, never-to-be defined daytime is The secret of where it takes place And we can no longer return to the various Conflicting statements gathered, lapses of memory Of the principal witnesses.
All we know Is that we are a little early, that Today has that special, lapidary Todayness that the sunlight reproduces Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe Sidewalks.
No previous day would have been like this.
I used to think they were all alike, That the present always looked the same to everybody But this confusion drains away as one Is always cresting into one's present.
Yet the "poetic," straw-colored space Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting, Its darkening opposite--is this Some figment of "art," not to be imagined As real, let alone special? Hasn't it too its lair In the present we are always escaping from And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days Pursues its uneventful, even serene course? I think it is trying to say it is today And we must get out of it even as the public Is pushing through the museum now so as to Be out by closing time.
You can't live there.
The gray glaze of the past attacks all know-how: Secrets of wash and finish that took a lifetime To learn and are reduced to the status of Black-and-white illustrations in a book where colorplates Are rare.
That is, all time Reduces to no special time.
No one Alludes to the change; to do so might Involve calling attention to oneself Which would augment the dread of not getting out Before having seen the whole collection (Except for the sculptures in the basement: They are where they belong).
Our time gets to be veiled, compromised By the portrait's will to endure.
It hints at Our own, which we were hoping to keep hidden.
We don't need paintings or Doggerel written by mature poets when The explosion is so precise, so fine.
Is there any point even in acknowledging The existence of all that? Does it Exist? Certainly the leisure to Indulge stately pastimes doesn't, Any more.
Today has no margins, the event arrives Flush with its edges, is of the same substance, Indistinguishable.
"Play" is something else; It exists, in a society specifically Organized as a demonstration of itself.
There is no other way, and those assholes Who would confuse everything with their mirror games Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or At least confuse issues by means of an investing Aura that would corrode the architecture Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery, Are beside the point.
They are out of the game, Which doesn't exist until they are out of it.
It seems like a very hostile universe But as the principle of each individual thing is Hostile to, exists at the expense of all the others As philosophers have often pointed out, at least This thing, the mute, undivided present, Has the justification of logic, which In this instance isn't a bad thing Or wouldn't be, if the way of telling Didn't somehow intrude, twisting the end result Into a caricature of itself.
This always Happens, as in the game where A whispered phrase passed around the room Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike What the artist intended.
Often he finds He has omitted the thing he started out to say In the first place.
Seduced by flowers, Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining He had a say in the matter and exercised An option of which he was hardly conscious, Unaware that necessity circumvents such resolutions.
So as to create something new For itself, that there is no other way, That the history of creation proceeds according to Stringent laws, and that things Do get done in this way, but never the things We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately To see come into being.
Parmigianino Must have realized this as he worked at his Life-obstructing task.
One is forced to read The perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose Into the smooth, perhaps even bland (but so Enigmatic) finish.
Is there anything To be serious about beyond this otherness That gets included in the most ordinary Forms of daily activity, changing everything Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near Peak, too close to ignore, too far For one to intervene? This otherness, this "Not-being-us" is all there is to look at In the mirror, though no one can say How it came to be this way.
A ship Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor.
You are allowing extraneous matters To break up your day, cloud the focus Of the crystal ball.
Its scene drifts away Like vapor scattered on the wind.
The fertile Thought-associations that until now came So easily, appear no more, or rarely.
Their Colorings are less intense, washed out By autumn rains and winds, spoiled, muddied, Given back to you because they are worthless.
Yet we are such creatures of habit that their Implications are still around en permanence, confusing Issues.
To be serious only about sex Is perhaps one way, but the sands are hissing As they approach the beginning of the big slide Into what happened.
This past Is now here: the painter's Reflected face, in which we linger, receiving Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned Frequency, but the hues have turned metallic, The curves and edges are not so rich.
Each person Has one big theory to explain the universe But it doesn't tell the whole story And in the end it is what is outside him That matters, to him and especially to us Who have been given no help whatever In decoding our own man-size quotient and must rely On second-hand knowledge.
Yet I know That no one else's taste is going to be Any help, and might as well be ignored.
Once it seemed so perfect--gloss on the fine Freckled skin, lips moistened as though about to part Releasing speech, and the familiar look Of clothes and furniture that one forgets.
This could have been our paradise: exotic Refuge within an exhausted world, but that wasn't In the cards, because it couldn't have been The point.
Aping naturalness may be the first step Toward achieving an inner calm But it is the first step only, and often Remains a frozen gesture of welcome etched On the air materializing behind it, A convention.
And we have really No time for these, except to use them For kindling.
The sooner they are burnt up The better for the roles we have to play.
Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand, Offer it no longer as shield or greeting, The shield of a greeting, Francesco: There is room for one bullet in the chamber: Our looking through the wrong end Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately Among the features of the room, an invitation Never mailed, the "it was all a dream" Syndrome, though the "all" tells tersely Enough how it wasn't.
Its existence Was real, though troubled, and the ache Of this waking dream can never drown out The diagram still sketched on the wind, Chosen, meant for me and materialized In the disguising radiance of my room.
We have seen the city; it is the gibbous Mirrored eye of an insect.
All things happen On its balcony and are resumed within, But the action is the cold, syrupy flow Of a pageant.
One feels too confined, Sifting the April sunlight for clues, In the mere stillness of the ease of its Parameter.
The hand holds no chalk And each part of the whole falls off And cannot know it knew, except Here and there, in cold pockets Of remembrance, whispers out of time.



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