being in love with light

The Ancient Greek word for the literary practice which embeds art into its expression is ekphrasis . It’s derived from the combination of two words: ek, which can mean ‘for the sake of,’ and phradzein, meaning ‘to show, point out, describe.’ The recombined definition then yields ekphrasis, or ‘a process carried out for the sake of description.’ The writer or poet, realising that “A picture is worth a thousand words” (or even a hundred), weaves the artwork, which exists independently within its own visual language, into verbal language – in a sense publishing it afresh. Howard Nemerov‘s poem, Vermeer, is a fine example of an ekphrastic poem.

I don’t know anything about Nemerov’s contemplative inclinations, but this poem suggests to me that he was familiar with the state of unconditioned nondual awareness: how else could he come up with a line like ‘At one for once with sunlight’? Perhaps he was a closet Zen Master. The first line of the poem, ‘Taking what is, and seeing it as it is’ could have come straight from the pages of a Zen manual.

Nemerov’s penetrating mindfulness – and by implication, the painter’s as well – flavours other phrases in the poem: ‘Keeping it simple’, ‘being in love with light’, ‘sunlight falling through/A leaded window’, ‘A woman in blue/ Reading a letter’, ‘a lady weighing gold’, ‘Watching the water in the foreground dream/Reflectively’, ‘taking a view of Delft’…

When reading the words ‘If I could say to you, and make it stick’, I muse whether the poem was conceived as being spoken by a wondering Vermeer to a hearer centuries later. It is centuries later right now, and I am moved to reflect upon Nemerov’s lines, to study the paintings referred to in the poem – ‘A girl in a red hat’, a ‘woman in blue/Reading a letter’, the ‘lady weighing gold’, a ‘view of Delft’, to marvel at the apparent paradoxes of ‘seductive modesty’, of ‘holy mathematic’, of the ‘inexorable domesticated into charm’. And to applaud Nemerov’s aspiration: ‘I think we should be for one moment happy/In the great reckoning of those little rooms/Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light …’

 

Johannes Vermeer: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter

Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1663 – 1664
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

 

Vermeer
by Howard Nemerov

Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures,
Keeping it simple; being in love with light
And the marvelous things that light is able to do,
How beautiful! a modesty which is
Seductive extremely, the care of daily things.

At one for once with sunlight falling through
A leaded window, the holy mathematic
Plays out the cat’s cradle of relation
Endlessly; even the inexorable
Domesticates itself and becomes charm.

If I could say to you, and make it stick,
A girl in a red hat, a woman in blue
Reading a letter, the lady weighing gold . . .
If I could say this to you so you saw,
And knew, and agreed that this was how it was
In a lost city across the sea of years,
I think we should be for one moment happy
In the great reckoning of those little rooms
Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light,
Or standing invisible on the shore opposed,
Watching the water in the foreground dream
Reflectively, taking a view of Delft
As it was, under a wide and darkening sky.

 

Johannes Vermeer: Girl with the Red Hat

Johannes Vermeer: Girl with the Red Hat, 1665 – 1666
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

 

Johannes Vermeer: Woman Holding a Balance

Johannes Vermeer: Woman Holding a Balance, 1662 – 1665
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

 

Johannes Vermeer: View of Delft

Johannes Vermeer: View of Delft, 1660 – 1661
Mauritshuis, The Hague

 


Excellent website devoted to all things Vermeer:

Essential Vermeer


The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov
(Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1981)


 

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