A woman paints herself
There could scarcely be a more suitable project for Hercules Editions, with their emphasis on poetic/artistic collaboration, than this sonnet redoublé (or heroic crown) riffing on fifteen paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi, each sonnet opposite its generating painting.
Gentileschi’s habit of using herself as a model lends itself to autobiographical interpretation, and one thing that comes over very clearly from her paintings is strength: not only her Judiths and Jaels but her Danaes and Lucretias are powerfully built, with determination in every line of their faces, nobody’s pushovers. Lucretia, as the poem on “her” painting remarks, is not aiming her blade, in the approved manner, at her own heart; rather she is pointing it away from herself, as if wondering at whom it might more usefully be aimed, and this cannot but remind us that Artemisia, in the same situation, had no use for suicide; she rebuilt her life on her own terms.
the handle, angle it upwards, as if to taste
the salt of vengeance. Hmmm. Who could I kill?
It’s interesting that her parents named her, not after some saint or virtue (like her mother Prudencia) but for a pre-christian queen who personally commanded a battle fleet. Her father Orazio doesn’t always get the best press, but he does at least seem to have recognised and fostered her talent. She, however, is the one who works out how to “build the brand/and market it”. Despite the need to please patrons and public taste, she comes over, both in the paintings and these poems, as totally in control, taking control both of her signature subject matter and her interpretation of it – “she’ll pick her story, choose the way to spin it”.
This being so, one can see the reason for the choice of form. A crown of sonnets is fiendishly complex; an heroic crown even more so: the poet must begin at the end, with the master sonnet, and then construct the other 14 to a pattern whereby the first sonnet begins with the first line of the master sonnet and ends with the second, beginning a chain; the second sonnet begins with the second line of the master and ends with the third and so on until the 14th sonnet begins with the 14th line of the master and ends with the first, completing the chain. Ideally each of the first 14 sonnets examines some aspect of the theme while the master, at the end, brings them together.
The trick, of course, is to ensure that all the key lines still make sense in fifteen different contexts, and even with slight variations it isn’t easy. In some ways it is more like architecture than writing and demands a high degree of control which seems eminently well fitted to this subject, a woman rewriting her own story, arranging and shaping the material of her life to suit herself. Ekphrastic poems don’t always work for me if all they do is describe what I can already see in the painting; there needs to be a degree of reinterpretation, so that one ends up seeing more in the painting. In “Susannah and the Elders” we hear Susannah’s voice (or is it Artemisia’s, thinking in her person?) defining exactly what is going on, in terms that seem to telescope three time periods, Susannah’s, Artemisia’s and our own:
The elder puts his finger to his lips. Hush!
Silence, fear and shame; the go-to tricks
to nail a woman: timeless, quick, no need
for force. But this one doesn’t go to plan.
There is a dry, dark humour about many of these poems, which again sounds fitting for this tough, practical woman: the “well-overdressed” Angel Gabriel of “The Annunciation”, the “giant infant’s rump” of “Virgin and Child with a Rosary”, the satyr who is left looking foolish as he clutches the fleeing Corisca’s false hairpiece, the golden rain of “Danae":
Between her thighs
the coins line up, like she’s a slot machine
This sequence is a terrific technical achievement, making a nonsense of the notion, still oddly prevalent, that poems in strict form are stilted or mechanical – these couldn’t be livelier. But what makes them memorable is the way they use the paintings to find a way into a life which was of its time, yet transcended its “age of limits”.