Winner of the Sixth
Annual Boston Review Poetry Contest
Introduced by Richard Howard
The winning poem of this years
Boston Review poetry contest is an extended dramatic meditation
on problems and principles of owing and figuration. We begin (a
historically grounded ekphrasis) with an inspection (coached by
the famous expert in Flemish art Walter Friedländer) of Quentin
Massyss famous 1514 painting of the moneylender and his
wife (in the Louvre) which owes so much to Leonardo
and Van Eyck, and which climaxes a theme much rehearsed in European
art of the period. In a sense the poem is an answer to the question
of why so many people should have wanted to own a picture of tax
men gloating over their impostsbringing us up to date in
New York, by way of a shoplifters scene (she watched
the cashier in the convex mirror) and a parting glance in
the car that takes us away from the museum. There is a whirling
sense of the shift from Renaissance Antwerp to modern New York
by way of the speakers response to the painting (the
debtor does not know his debt to the skittering city . . .
he crams so much in, Massys . . . Or is it metaphor,
what we strive for, we poets), and an astonishing
series of identifications between the figures glimpsed (as in
the convex mirror) and imagined as they are reckoned in the ledgers
of history. The poem is complex, fruitfully bewildering, but minutely
rewarding, beautifully phrased and intimately focused as it is
(my guide in these matters is yourself, / your own soul
permeable by beauty, and mine not, not even by the swirling of
facts). It requires rereading, and each time repays with
new discoveries, new delights.
The Debtor in the Convex Mirror
after Quentin Massys, c. 1514
it out. By now from abroad there are shillings and real
Bohemian silver fills the new coinsbut his haul is gold,
écu au soleil,
excelente, mostly: wafers thin and impressed with their marks,
new worlds gold the Spanish pluck or West African ore Portugals
slaves sling. The gold wafers gleam in their spill by the scale.
Calm before gale: what bought a sack a century before almost
buys a sack now; the Price Revolutions to come. A third
of a masons
a master onesdays wage funds the nights
wine, Rhine, for his crew
after a big job wraps up. As for dried herring, his days
wage would buy
fifteen mille for a big do; his workers, just nine18 stroo.
Calm in his
commerce is the businessman, and his wife, their disheveled shelves:
she turns a page; her hands are in God but her gaze is on ange-nobles
and pearls, weights and gold ringsone florin in pan, one
in his hand.
What sync they are in: calm their regard, luxe, volupté leur
Fur trimmings on jackets, gemstones on fingerswhile the
debtor in the mirror has spent what he has on the red hat hes
Prayer book illumined: luxury that,
and to ignore: only more.
Calmed by the calculation of interest, though the figures
clear for a good quarter hour, the moneylender withholds it and
the debtor is better with fuzz in his head. In truth, hes
like the shield impressed in the écu dint the meet of his
beneath the red hat. Whats he reading? Or faking? Caught
curve of an offices alarm, an anti- to crime, a drugstores
long centuries to come, the debtorabout to receive knell
peace he might otherwise recallworries his page. Ability
reading silently may not be his; the lenders wife puts him
though the shame in this is the least of his shames. In the yard
beyond her waits one of his lienors for the gold of another.
Schoolmarms ahoy. Scrap history, the parable, the prayer of the
illustrated hours she trembles to hold. Hes got his gold,
merized or not by its sheen, the debtors lost to our reflecting
but its without, a measurement is madea figures
gesture on the
gravitate street, the fury of a face in its
face, behind the door ajar, the
fingers of the lienor demarcating fast the size of a peck or a
not so. The debt is as large as a giants
back turning, large as
a vulcanic forge. And
of the debt imbursed
of its toy
Fume individually, fume
borrower, clipper, catcher, coiner, getter, grabber, hoarder,
loser, lover, raiser, spender, teller, thirster
lays out upon collateral, but
what has the red-hat? Zero
So here you are. Master.
said Friedländer, were common possession, freebooty,
A painting by Jan van Eyck eighty years before Massys, glimpsed
and described in Milan but now lost, was its model: banker and
the portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini in a red hat not unlike Massys
a year earlier, Arnolfini and his wife at their marriage, we know.
In the latter,
the self van Eyck daubed in its own convex mirror (one of four
affixed like a crucifix on the backdrop of wall, rides the conjoined
as a charm. But nothing foreshadowed the hand of your own.
Your painters (nineteen, set
off for Rome with the jewel of his art)
hand in the gem of its bulge, the hand the pope pronto kissed
with commissiona job, you note, never come through.
Genre derives from the devotional: beauty and ange
on one side,
deformity by vice on the other, or so said Friedländer. He
found the wifes gaze
full of dispirit, lofty sadness. She and her husband
are yes tight-lipped.
The palm of the hand, like the open mouth, were Massys registries
of emotionality, he wrote, but the souls in this painting have
Sentimentally, it pleases Massys
to feel sorrow, and grief takes on
mild forms. Worrys otherwise: Massyss St. Anthony,
tempted by courtesans, peaks his browswild, broken peaks!
the moneylenders debtor. So much for effects, effects of
virtuoso, whose pyrotechnics, new wine poured into old bottles,
welled from a kind of nervous energyin any event,
not from the heart.
The antithesis of artist
(Friedländer, still): this, the debtor to Leonardo,
to Van Eyck, may well have known, knowledge well welling his brows
mirror the moneylender ignores. My
guide in these matters is your self,
your own soul permeable by beauty, and
not even by the swirling of facts, leveling
can the soul swim out through the eyes and still
return safely to its nest?
That it be
I cannot leave. Though around me, and the art,
was the lookout. She watched the cashier in the convex mirror,
watched Jean Shrimpton on the point-of-purchase long before it
its name. Thérèse:
careful, Catholic, pregnant and
I took the
in my fingers and slipped it to Christmas.
Thérèse: to the racks,
Beat. A few moments more and wed be through the
it was in the painters hand, out for a dole
so close with the popes promise!
that he sought a soul.
And these coins, fragments of a web
sat and did not labor, despite her Marthas sting.
Its still, tonight. The peepers, out, self-
Sometimes a welling up: Ive lost
in images. Night: a blank.
stars just stars.
sternies prick like whin.
Kids bicycle on its rim, under the road lamp chill
A soul could be blank as these bald things.
blank. Or so we thought.
So this much we have: banker and wife, waist-up at table, she
with her prayer-book watching the gold coins spill on the surface
before us. What we see in their clothes is the waist-cinch:
her red seamy bodice, his jacket, furred collars and cuffs.
Behind them, just two shelves: account books and objects
then, out a window or door, two figures obscured but for
faces and heads, one forefinger and thumb in a U.
In the fore of the table, a diverging mirror, gold frame,
askew. And, by his reflected place, we see, we viewers,
sitting right where we are, a red-hatted man who holds
a book to his chin as though he is sunning. Rather,
hes readingor trying, by the fold in his brow.
Real light, long, late-day, slants through the window
above him where a steeples filigrees revealed. And
Most agree the red-hatted readers the painter; it matches
his portrait from Wiericxs engraving. The clothings
outdated, the bankers wifes bodice derives from the
Van Eyck did of his wife Margaret in that weird hornèd hat.
And Saint Eligius, patron of goldsmiths, converter of Antwerp,
in Christus scene, had a curved mirror turned toward outdoors.
Copies of Massys come later. They drop the debtor, insert a
messenger. Imitators of Massys update
that the convex tondo, inside of a painting, was not a dozen a
not just Massys, not just Van Eyck, it was in the wind
in Brabant, in Ghent, Bruges, Anvers, through the Burgundy hold,
fresh off a pubs haul and into the workshop,
popping up through the guilds ghastly
cliché it was then.
the Lowlands begin.
Astonishing city. A rube, lets say Charles, onions in sacks
slung on his
mules back, he a standout in his coarse sayette, enters
inhales as he draws near the docks. Gulls swoop; three Fuggers,
in wool dickedinnen, speaking abreast in deliberate tread, stop
cold crossing his path. Street stalls of changers, merchants with
crates unloadingfish, sugarby Spaniards and Danes;
dragomen emitting unrecognizable tongues: such swirl over Charles
in our genre-esque scene. In the movie, wed hear the THX
hooves in their wary trades forth. What little Charles knows of
he has heard at the fairs in the mediant towns outlying the western
On the way, thered been Ghent, its self-satisfied sense.
Talk there of
trade throttled by this guild or that, trade nip-and-tuck against
Antwerp, said an oiler in Deinze, up-and-comer is it,
if you want one
that is. Hub of all nations, market of kings. Nothing there,
to stand in the way of a man with ambition or a star in his
No, if youre smart, youll go there and quick.
Charles had nodded
and drunk from his mug, but the notion then planted by the man
took root. Now, in the pitch of the persons, in the roil of the
Charles sees there the commerce: purposeful, restive, serene
a trades un-self-consciousness, a self-sufficiency in such
and Charles is impressed. His own small purse, pendant in his
pocket, feels slight but sufficient to one.
Bijns, the young lady
says to him not three days later. Shes forthright as a slip,
and at once
he wants the pocket fuller, a past thats not his. A girl
of means, she
she could show him her whole shelf of books, her writing-room,
verses that denounce the psalm-sop, Luther. Like his sins are
worse than ours, shell say, to those more worthy
Town common to all nations, Guicciardini later wrote
of the city.
First capitalist center . . . in the modern
sense, wrote Chlepner.
When Charles and Massys shared Antwerp its reign had just begun;
each week brought scores of foreigners, folded in like butter,
out to let a household kept kempt in local fashion, clean,
its Dinanderie in order and its linens boiled and hung.
Down Gulden street, the house thats held by the Hanseatic
market; across the way, the square that will become, in a score
years, the worlds first stock exchangeshops, fragrant
Portuguese spices, beckon with the latest haul. The merchant
moneylender leans to the obsolescence of his coinsthe paper
debts he trades more in leave gold to the unconjoined, sole
debtors like this painter worrying his paper text. Livre tournois,
the French would call them, units of money valued at a Roman
pound, and livre, book: not the first time the twore
Charles, counting his ducats, catches a red hat from the coin
of his eye, costume of a century before: its Massys he sees.
The painters off to work in the salt crusted air, preparing
away from the shadow of a city, siphon, you
wrote, of the life
of the studio
self to be seen.
New York tonight
in its heat wave. The sidewalks
burn soles. Haze like a coat warms up the ones out. Prague
markets in side-flip. Each day doubling back
the stalk that holds coral bells tracing its arbitrary round.
the U on the street
ask Bernays, hell know. Buy
The painter in the mirror wants privacy, not this call that invades
the reading of a book. Your own looked out at us, but mine, Massys
disingenuous, masquerading, stressed and dampdoesnt;
things on his mind hes got not. But he only pretends to
Its we who discern the privacy he wants, we who can see
what he lacks. Its as though were instructed to trust
his own fix being more, well, sequestered.
The last century mined focus as a notion, and even here in Manhattan,
a delirium of sorts swabbing its streets,
we tread with the intensity of hounds,
plugged into our earpiece conjointments, or collecting loose change
off of cuffs. Massys grimace under-dramatizes our lot.
thats what makes genres
ribbon, blue bob
for the watched fob.
No, thalers come
much, you prig.
So the grasping soul is unredeemed. Freak accident
yeah, guy goes up a hill in thorns, ends up on a stick.
Not quite, not impaled, more tacked up. Yeah.
And the grasping soul goes clean.
its our internalness
were stuck on.
Captain Me, O Consciousness.
The soul negotiates its right of way,
but not without a bargain struck without. Why all
or nothing, is what Charles thinks, watching the painter disappear
O Captain Me
a costume fit to paint. After all,
Charles doesnt know the painters
In a cloud
left by dusty wheels, he
O captain me, o
hears a boy call natura naturata! Red (Flemish) herring!
and wells with tears. Impossible o
that this he heard, silt eyes silt ears
in an older voice, murmuring, awaystrange songs of spring
that reach the rube in worsted wraps, wheels clattering about
his self, while each breath, immarginate,
clangs to differentiate its action from the worlds.
O captain me.
Sad country sack, negotiant, kneels in the dust to pray.
He crams so much in, Massys. And then I reached
that time in life when, all my spices scattered, every story
Every surface filled with hardware, pots, jetonsa collectors
the world impresses back, impresses with a shield or beast or
profile of a noble sort
the same impressions, though the edges of each coin be irregular
it being half a century before die standardized.
And even then, this penny black with chewing-gum, that one having
the inside of a shoe, this none but a bankers rollthe
goes grim. Or is it metaphor, what we strive for, we
poets. Book-makers with the odds of slugs.
dont need paintings or / doggerel
on this too youre true.
man hand-making his U in the yard
knows Massyss a kite-man, bad risk, a debtor. All glow and
him. Each time
intent to aliment not only he but they
what comes his way gives
tonight, here, stampede of slugs
all that enters here, in
pages strewn, in air report and digit-pulse: his way. The
debtor does not know his debt to the skittering city. The bank
of birds up a skyscrapers flank. Patience of his creditors.
What does a trust in surfaces ensure but faith that the surfaces
Blue surroundings. Your nose, welling in the car mirrors
my own in the hubcap hull
What is this but an arrangement of figures on an open field?
But they overlapand this is the heart, despite
the heart of the bind of the debtor: a debt becoming due.
Inveigling the day to take orders from himsuch a
ray from the
cathedral, still in construction, for which Massys metal-work
is said to encircle a wellthe red-hatted man pretends.
The soul encumbers what no other soul knows? Think again.
The mirror lies between two scalesone bankers, one
and Massys is but writ on its glass. Its the man in the
the jig up with fingers, wholl reckon the dark fundamentals
once the weigh-ins are done. And the world impresses him, too.
The world overlaps them indentures them both.
door bangs. Dark Brooklyn, dark clattering night.
the lineages strong for the sons of moneylenders,
carry. They get the short end. The debtors excuses
for the false fealty of her deals.
Adept at outline, Friedländer meant. Ready angle of the
arms, echo of the angle in the glass. Her limpid
lit sole. Debtors histrionics, a painters joke
as they go.
Car door creaks its opening, back for a pack
of cigarettes. Side mirror loose, door slam. Wheeled overland
the Venetian goodsand cotton, from Levant
are writ up
the noon sun and portside)
The paper suffices for sugar and salt.
is the author of Bag
o Diamonds, Smokes,
Source Codes. She teaches at Princeton and at New School
is the author of 12 books of poems, including Untitled
Talking Cures. He is Professor of Practice at Columbia
Universitys School of Arts (Writing Division).
Originally published in the October/November
2003 issue of Boston Review