Dark son, whose face once shone like this,
oiled from well within the skin
of canvas, and those liquid eyes
the brown of rootbeer underneath
a crewcut’s crown, just washed,
his body’s gone unfinished now
more than thirty years—blank tent
of bathrobe like a choirboy’s surplice
over the cassock’s stroke of color,
a red pajama collar.
Drawn as if it might reveal
the dotted hills of Rome, a drape
behind him opens on a wall
she’d painted with a roller once.
Everything made at home—
she made the drapes, she made the boy,
and then, pure joy, remade him in
a pose to bear his mother’s hope:
the deep, three-quarter gaze; the tome
he fingers like a pope.
Is this the History of Art
he marks her place in, or—wait—
that illustrated Brothers Grimm
she’d given him, and shows she lived
mostly by the heart?
Hard to sort out . . . She rarely put
the final touch on anything
when he was young. It seems that bringing
the real boy up had taken time
away from painting him
(no crime); she’d also failed to think
of him—back then her only child—
as truly done, and one child only,
but marvelled as he altered like
the light she painted by.
. . . Like, too, the image he’s retained
of the sun in her that now is set,
her eyes that took him back, and in,
squinting as he squirmed, appraising,
praising him again,
so that, when sifting through her basement
stacked with a dozen such false starts,
and lifting this one, lighter than
he thought it ought to be, to frame
and hang in his apartment,
he saw in his flushed face how she’d
recreated there what rose
and fell in hers: the confidence
she forfeited each time she dared
think of an audience.
Who (she must have asked) would care?
He does: that finished head conveys
still to him how, sought in a crowd,
a loved one stands apart—he’s taller,
comes in another shade.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 3, on page 38
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