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Susan Wheeler

Winner of the Sixth Annual Boston Review Poetry Contest

Introduced by Richard Howard

The winning poem of this year’s 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 Massys’s 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 imposts—bringing us up to date in New York, by way of a shoplifter’s 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 speaker’s 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

He counts it out. By now from abroad there are shillings and real—
Bohemian silver fills the new coins—but his haul is gold, écu au soleil,
excelente, mostly: wafers thin and impressed with their marks, milled
new world’s gold the Spanish pluck or West African ore Portugal’s

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 Revolution’s to come. A third of a mason’s—
a master one’s—day’s wage funds the night’s wine, Rhine, for his crew

after a big job wraps up. As for dried herring, his day’s wage would buy
fifteen mille for a big do; his workers, just nine—18 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 rings—one florin in pan, one in his hand.
What sync they are in: calm their regard, luxe, volupté leur mien.
Fur trimmings on jackets, gemstones on fingers—while the
debtor in the mirror has spent what he has on the red hat he’s in.

Prayer book illumined: luxury that, and to ignore: only more.
Calmed by the calculation of interest, though the figure’s been
clear for a good quarter hour, the moneylender withholds it and waits:
the debtor is better with fuzz in his head. In truth, he’s distressed: cares

like the shield impressed in the écu dint the meet of his brow
beneath the red hat. What’s he reading? Or faking? Caught in the
curve of an office’s alarm, an anti- to crime, a drugstore’s big boon
long centuries to come, the debtor—about to receive knell to what

peace he might otherwise recall—worries his page. Ability for
reading silently may not be his; the lender’s wife puts him to shame,
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. He’s got his gold, she’s mes-
merized or not by its sheen, the debtor’s lost to our reflecting of him—
but it’s without, a measurement is made—a figure’s 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 pecker
not so. The debt is as large as a giant’s back turning, large as
a vulcanic forge. And

                                        fragment of the debt imbursed—

                                                                                      size of its toy—
intense regard.
Fume individually, fume

borrower, clipper, catcher, coiner, getter, grabber, hoarder, loser, lover, raiser, spender, teller, thirster—

                                                                   scrivener lays out upon collateral, but
what has the red-hat? Zero

                                                                                                          and then sum.

So here you are.             Master.

                                                                                              These ideas,
said Friedländer, were “common possession, freebooty, fair game.”

A painting by Jan van Eyck eighty years before Massys’, glimpsed
and described in Milan but now lost, was its model: banker and wife;

the portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini in a red hat not unlike Massys’ debtor and,
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 figures),
affixed like a crucifix on the backdrop of wall, rides the conjoined hands

as a charm. But nothing foreshadowed the hand of your own.
Your painter’s (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 commission—a 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 wife’s 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 neither.
Sentimentally, it pleases Massys “to feel sorrow, and grief takes on

mild forms.” Worry’s otherwise: Massys’s St. Anthony, elsewhere,
tempted by courtesans, peaks his brows—wild, broken peaks!— same as

the moneylender’s debtor. So much for effects, effects of Massys,
virtuoso, whose pyrotechnics, “new wine poured into old bottles,”

welled “from a kind of nervous energy—in 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 in the
mirror the moneylender ignores.             My guide in these matters is your self,

your own soul permeable by beauty,             and mine not,
not even by the swirling of facts, leveling—

                                                                                how far, indeed,

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,

I fail.


was the lookout. She watched the cashier in the convex mirror, and I
watched Jean Shrimpton on the point-of-purchase long before it had
its name. Thérèse:

                                                                  careful, Catholic, pregnant and smoking.

                                        lips                                  lipstick

I took the

             cylinder in my fingers and slipped it to Christmas.              Thérèse: to the racks,
Seventeen, Tiger Beat. A few moments more and we’d be through the door.

Maybe it was in the painter’s hand, out for a dole
so close with the pope’s promise! –
that he sought a soul.

And these coins, fragments of a web—

Mary sat and did not labor, despite her Martha’s sting.

It’s still, tonight. The peepers, out, self-
Sometimes a welling up: I’ve lost
                                       thought in images. Night: a blank.
                          The stars just stars.
             The sternies prick like whin.
Kid’s bicycle on its rim, under the road lamp chill
                                      as ice.
A soul could be blank as these bald things.
                          Are 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,
he’s reading—or trying, by the fold in his brow.

Real light, long, late-day, slants through the window
above him where a steeple’s filigree’s revealed. And that’s all.

Most agree the red-hatted reader’s the painter; it matches
his portrait from Wiericx’s engraving. The clothing’s

outdated, the banker’s wife’s bodice derives from the portrait
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

                                                                                the coins.


that the convex tondo, inside of a painting, was not a dozen a dime—
not just Massys, not just Van Eyck, it was in the wind blowing,
in Brabant, in Ghent, Bruges, Anvers, through the Burgundy hold,
fresh off a pub’s haul and into the workshop,
popping up through the guilds          ghastly cliché it was then.

              we get             ahead            rewind           to the Lowlands          begin.

Astonishing city. A rube, let’s say Charles, onions in sacks slung on his
mule’s back, he a standout in his coarse sayette, enters this Antwerp,
inhales as he draws near the docks. Gulls swoop; three Fuggers, capitalists,

in wool dickedinnen, speaking abreast in deliberate tread, stop him
cold crossing his path. Street stalls of changers, merchants with money;
crates unloading—fish, sugar—by Spaniards and Danes;

dragomen emitting unrecognizable tongues: such swirl over Charles
in our genre-esque scene. In the movie, we’d hear the THX clok,
hooves in their wary trades forth. What little Charles knows of this place

he has heard at the fairs in the mediant towns outlying the western Ypres.
On the way, there’d been Ghent, its self-satisfied sense. Talk there of
trade throttled by this guild or that, trade nip-and-tuck against Bruges’:

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, either,
to stand in the way of a man with ambition or a star in his bush.

No, if you’re smart, you’ll 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 merchants,

Charles sees there the commerce: purposeful, restive, serene—
a trade’s 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.

                                                                  Anna Bijns, the young lady
says to him not three days later. She’s forthright as a slip, and at once
he wants the pocket fuller, a past that’s not his. A girl of means, she—

she could show him her whole shelf of books, her writing-room, her
verses that denounce the psalm-sop, Luther. Like his sins are
worse than ours, she’ll say, to those more worthy of answer.

“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 that’s held by the Hanseatic corn
market; across the way, the square that will become, in a score of
years, the world’s first stock exchange—shops, fragrant with

Portuguese spices, beckon with the latest haul. The merchant
moneylender leans to the obsolescence of his coins—the 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 two’re confused.

Charles, counting his ducats, catches a red hat from the coin
of his eye, costume of a century before: it’s Massys he sees.
The painter’s 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—

                                                                   his self to be seen.

New York tonight
                                        boils in its heat wave. The sidewalks
burn soles. Haze like a coat warms up the ones out.           Prague


                  The market’s in side-flip. Each day doubling back
                                                                                                           the day before,
the stalk that holds coral bells tracing its arbitrary round. Perhaps
the U on the street
                                      is a score.

                                                                                                                     Principal export:

ask Bernays, he’ll know.           Buy low.

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 damp—doesn’t; weightier
things on his mind he’s got not. But he only pretends to absorption.
It’s we who discern the privacy he wants, we who can see
what he lacks. It’s as though we’re instructed to trust the lender,
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.

                                                                              thassright, that’s what makes genres—

                                                                              pink ribbon, blue bob—
                                                                              thaler for the watched fob.

No, thalers                                       come later.

                                                                                                           Not much, you prig.

Later enough.

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.

                                                                             Maybe it’s our internalness
we’re stuck on.
                            O Captain Me, O Consciousness.

The soul negotiates its right of way,

                                                              O consciousness,

but not without a bargain struck without. Why all
or nothing, is what Charles thinks, watching the painter disappear

O Captain Me
                                                     in a costume fit to paint. After all,
Charles doesn’t know the painter’s

                                        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 consciousness
that this he heard, silt eyes silt ears

                          Copper’s up

in an older voice, murmuring, away—strange 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 world’s.

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 turned


Every surface filled with hardware, pots, jetons—a collector’s box—
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 and bent—
it being half a century before die standardized.
And even then, this penny black with chewing-gum, that one having seen
the inside of a shoe, this none but a banker’s roll—the analogy

goes grim. Or is it metaphor, what we strive for, we

poets. Book-makers with the odds of slugs.

                                                                               We don’t need paintings or / doggerel
                                                                               and on this too you’re true.

                                                     The man hand-making his U in the yard
knows Massys’s a kite-man, bad risk, a debtor. All glow and show

             and then off
                                                      world, world, world                           with him. Each time

intent to aliment not only he but they

what comes his way                          gives way.

                          Even tonight, here, stampede of slugs
                                                                                                           in 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 skyscraper’s flank. Patience of his creditors. What does a trust in surfaces ensure but faith that the surfaces move?

Blue surroundings. Your nose, welling in the car mirror’s arc—
my own in the hubcap hull—

What is this but an arrangement of figures on an open field?
But they overlap—and this is the heart, despite Friedländer,

the heart of the bind of the debtor: a debt becoming due.
Inveigling the day to take orders from him—such a ray from the

cathedral, still in construction, for which Massys’ metal-work
is said to encircle a well—the red-hatted man pretends.

The soul encumbers what no other soul knows? Think again.
The mirror lies between two scales—one banker’s, one maker’s—

and Massys is but writ on its glass. It’s the man in the courtyard,
the jig up with fingers, who’ll reckon the dark fundamentals

once the weigh-ins are done. And the world impresses him, too.

The world overlaps them indentures them both.

                                                                                  Car door bangs. Dark Brooklyn, dark clattering night.

                                        Though the lineage’s strong for the sons of moneylenders,

daughters           don’t carry. They get the short end. The debtor’s excuses

                                                                                                                                 are many

for the false fealty of her deals.

                                                Adept at outline, Friedländer meant. Ready angle of the
                                                couple’s arms, echo of the angle in the glass. Her limpid
                                                face lit sole. Debtor’s histrionics, a painter’s joke
                                                shallow as they go.

Car door creaks its opening, back for a pack
of cigarettes. Side mirror loose, door slam. Wheeled overland

                                                                                                                     from Venice
the Venetian goods—and cotton, from Levant—
are writ up
                                       (in the noon sun and portside)

                         and certified lading.
The paper suffices for sugar and salt.

Susan Wheeler is the author of Bag ‘o’ Diamonds, Smokes, and Source Codes. She teaches at Princeton and at New School University.

Richard Howard is the author of 12 books of poems, including Untitled Subjects, Trappings, and Talking Cures. He is Professor of Practice at Columbia University’s School of Arts (Writing Division).

Originally published in the October/November 2003 issue of Boston Review

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