Katherine Swett

Vermeer's Daughters

Through painting, the faces of the dead go on living for a very long time.


What parent knows the thoughts of a young daughter?—
assuming that his model was Marie,
Vermeer's first born, posed as he often caught her
giving that mocking look he used to see,
the kind I saw when my own teen-age child
stared at me if I tried to interfere
with what she did; her challenges were mild,
a quiet distance captured by Vermeer.
And all the space around his characters
is calm, the open window, patterned tile.
The viewer's free to see what she prefers:
the suitor's leer, the maiden's too broad smile.
Some parents might be glad to never know
what her mysterious glance might really show.


What her mysterious glance might really show
how can we guess? She doesn't look at us.
White letter floats above; blue dress below
spreads all around; her waist is voluminous
while flattened on the wall another globe
suggests the father writes from overseas;
but now the scholars say her ocean robe
may just be fashion and not pregnancy.
When I was pregnant I just looked too fat,
so on the bus most riders let me stand;
I'd read a book with half a mind on what
I read, another half on what I planned
or hoped to do once I had had my daughter,
a window opened on the sound of water.


A window opened on the sound of water,
her face is glowing with great happiness.
What is she thinking of, this burgher's daughter—
the beauty of her shining mustard dress,
his gallant gesture, confident and bold?
A velvet elbow in swashbuckling stance
creates a shining triangle of gold;
together they're an emblem of romance.
This memory of what love used to be,
a golden haze, a dash of velvet red,
a glass of wine and possibility
of travel in the map above your head.
Now they're long gone and have nowhere to go;
Vermeer paints what we know we cannot know.


Vermeer paints what we know we cannot know:
the light appears miraculously on pearls,
the figure vibrates in a yellow glow
that filters through the leaded pane. His girls
are either sinking deep inside their heads
or staring from the frame at Jan Vermeer
whose vision of their shining golden threads
the camera projected to his rear.
He paints another view of her that hovers,
a gibbous face faint in the window fog;
while scholars speculate about her lovers
and iconography they catalogue—
the fallen fruit, the rumpled rug, gold curl—
I only feel the distance from the girl.


I only feel the distance from the girl
alone, asleep; we know our children drink
and in their drunkenness the room might whirl,
but we cannot imagine what they think.
X rays show us an absent man, a pooch
as if the work were painted by De Witte
(a dog in church!) or Maes or Pieter de Hooch;
could she be drunk and snoring just a bit?
Above her on the wall a painted mask
suggests that some small drama might exist,
but as I never got the chance to ask
whom my dead daughter might have loved or kissed
or if she died untouched—she never said—
before her is a solid barricade.


Before her is a solid barricade,
abandoned instruments and furniture,
a monument of light in stiff brocade,
a yellow jacket trimmed in ermine fur
that signifies the season and the class
and that the painter liked this warmer hue
against her skin as she looks in the glass
as if adornment's all she has in view.
She puts her mask on for the world to share,
the mask the painter paints and lets dissolve,
the mask that seems to say she does not care,
a mask whose studied beauty can't resolve
the meaning of this enigmatic girl,
a grace note struck that shimmers like a pearl.


A grace note struck that shimmers like a pearl,
the string her right hand casually picks,
as her left fingers elegantly curl
around the pegs; below, the harmonics
are sounding on the half forgotten viol;
she's far from us, her back against the wall;
and does the curious glance, the subtle smile
suggest she hears her suitor in the hall?
No narrative's provided by Vermeer.
The lover might be far (the map behind);
the instrument might be a sign he's near.
I find in her something I need to find
That I can't hear the music that she made—
the image just the surface that she played.


The image just the surface that she played;
the music that the painter draws is not
more sweet than if the stops were pulled and stayed.
Like Orpheus one sense is all we've got.
This Caryatid holding up the sound
divides the painting as one might the strings
and splits the dark and light of the background,
so that it seems a perfect octave rings.
The music that he paints is so divine,
unwrapping all our tendons and our joints,
unstringing all the nerves along our spine;
it is not sound but light in brilliant points.
But still one sense is not enough for me;
her picture is a frail metonymy.


Her picture is a frail metonymy
of justice as her balance comes to rest;
behind her Christ is sorting damned and free.
Pale as the damned, she weighs a nothingness.
Despite an urge I feel to simplify,
I can't clear out my daughter's childhood room,
to organize the clutter for the eye,
to leave the space wide open for the broom,
to narrow down my life to just one task,
to tune the instrument in morning's glare,
to be someone who never needs to ask,
to stand and stare but really not to care,
to feel myself become my social mask,
a single room that might be anywhere.


A single room that might be anywhere,
a black-edged frame contains the world for me:
a man, a window, instruments, a chair,
a glow that spreads inside just like the sea
whose briny smell came through to Jan Vermeer.
As if, at last, I'm in the lady's head,
as if her vision in my eyes appears:
fine wine, a globe, sheet music, letters, bread.
By emptying the room of extra stuff,
he underscores the overtones of space,
the countless symbols painted with a brush,
the outline of the loss we try to trace
when bodies sink into their gravity,
a plaster wall's the emptiness we see.


A plaster wall's the emptiness we see
behind the woman's strange reflected glow
when she's alone and she can finally
feel all the things she never wants to show:
familiar strands that follow endlessly,
the steady stitch that goes as it must go;
he paints the distance, strength, dexterity
behind the mundane tasks that women know.
The patience, art and industry to sit
for hours dissolving in the sunny plaster,
a face half lit, her fingers poised to knit,
and nothing telling her she must go faster.
In moments when our thoughts and work cohere,
we're every one of us a small Vermeer.


We're every one of us a small Vermeer,
our selves emerging from a hand or face.
This maid has massive arms, large hips and rear
that fill and organize an emptied space.
The painter shows his own delight in work
by rendering her focus at her chore,
the elegant precision as she measures;
although the tiny tile at the floor
of Cupid might suggest some other pleasures.
The broken pane, the rough-hewn plaster textures
the wet-on-wet, impasto, glazes, scumbles,
techniques that scholars teach in schoolroom lectures,
the inward focus as the outward crumbles,
this knowledge that we're always on the brink
just as this liquid pours but never sinks.


Just as this liquid pours but never sinks,
I every day defy the gravity,
deny there's any reason why I blink,
except perhaps a mote caught in my eye.
Behind her form, the map and plaster walls,
the whiteness where her dark dress is immured;
outside the colored glass, the morning calls
of sailors and the slap of boats secured.
Preparing her ablutions for the day,
she heard the neighbor's baby as she laughed,
and smelled the rotting food and salty spray;
she's shutting out the boats and morning draft—
but these are only my imagined links;
there is no story telling what she thinks.


There is no story telling what she thinks;
our own close guarded children can't be known,
so we extrapolate from the small chinks
in adamantine armor they have grown.
Vermeer reminds me of my ignorance.
With any child insight comes unplanned;
from time to time an unexpected glance
creates the image that we understand.
I try to find my daughter who is dead
in music, painting, or a carved stone name.
Her voice is gone, so many words unsaid,
a silent love the most we'll ever claim.
Outside the window there is sky and water.
What parent knows the thoughts of a young daughter?


What parent knows the thoughts of a young daughter,
what her mysterious glance might really show,
a window opened on the sound of water:
Vermeer paints what we know we cannot know.
I only feel the distance from the girl;
before her is a solid barricade,
a grace note struck that shimmers like a pearl,
the image just the surface that she played.
Her picture is a frail metonymy,
a single room that might be anywhere,
a plaster wall's the emptiness we see;
we're every one of us a small Vermeer,
just as this liquid pours but never sinks—
there is no story telling what she thinks.

[1] The Girl with the Wineglass (Brunswick/Braunschweig) (1659/60)
[2] Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (Dublin) (1670) or Woman in Blue (Amsterdam) 1663-1664)
[3] Officer and Laughing Girl (Frick, NYC) (1658-1660)
[4] Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (Dresden) (1657)
[5] The Maid Asleep (Metropolitan, NYC) (1657)
[6] Woman with a Pearl Necklace (Berlin) (1664-1665)
[7] Woman with a Lute (Metropolitan, NYC) (1664)
[8] A Lady Standing at a Virginal (National Gallery, London) (1672-73)
[9] Woman Holding a Balance (National Gallery, Washington) (1664)
[10] The Music Lesson (Buckingham Palace, London) (1662-1664)
[11] The Lacemaker (Louvre) (1669-1670)
[12] The Milkmaid (Amsterdam) (1658-1660)
[13] Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (Metropolitan Museum, NYC) (1664-1665)
[14] Girl Interrupted at her Music (Frick, NYC) (1660-1661)


Wasn't there one she thought of lying with
as she unraveled rows of grass and flowers
and wondered what she might be buying with
this trick, years after he destroyed Troy's towers?
Wasn't there one for whom she could cast off
the years of loneliness, one never named
whose clumsy ways and accent made her laugh,
who glanced at her so shyly as he gamed?
The young boy left no privacy but dreams,
which nightly whispered neither lies nor truth:
her husband holds a goddess in his arms
while suitors stare at her and rob their farms;
she drags him matted, briny, safe from harms
and squeezes ghosts of women from his mouth.


We always noted when the fish stopped leaping,
or when we shoveled off the final snow;
we marked the date when tree frogs started peeping
or temperatures had reached their lowest low.
From those we calculated prior dates,
and time became like syllables of words,
as we searched out anti-penultimates
and what occurred before what then occurred.
And then we stopped the count, stopped finding fault
because we had to face our child's end
and feel no pride surviving an assault
that should have ended us, instead we tend
a future that somehow—somehow passed
the final syllable, to a new last.


Why do I have four typewriters secured
against calamities that I'll outlive
and have to write about? I'm pretty sure
that I'll be dead, but they will still survive
with no one left to write. I'm pretty sure
I have a rusty razor that once shaved
my father's face. I'm absolutely sure
I've stuff I long to toss that I once loved.
The worst part of the object fallacy
is trying to preserve you in what's left.
If I had none of it, none of this pelf
—old word good only for a rhyme, bereft
of quickening sense or easy intimacy—
would I remember better you yourself?

Fairy Tale

The youngest child is left at home alone
with parents tired of the endless years
of making do, pursuing their careers,
spending too much time on their cellphones,
and finding causes for their aching bones.
Suddenly this gorgeous youth appears
who should be wearing armor, crossing spears
with dwarves and giants, trolls and evil crones.
He's not, in fact, a changeling, as he seems,
but just an adolescent still at home
as restless as a foundling prince who dreams
of fleeing from the fisherman's poor shack
and sweeping through the fields to fight what comes
knowing that once he leaves he won't be back.


He puts away sports trophies, childish things,
throws out the Simpson doll he loved at twelve,
clears out some space for new books on the shelves
the Sartre next to Fellowship of the Rings,
The Brothers K, Das Capital, The Wings
Of the Dove
—how quickly adolescence delves
Into the multiplicity of selves
that 16 years in one small bedroom bring.
A bit of Lego buried in the rug's
worn pile reminds me of the eight-year old,
happy to talk, so casual with hugs;
his voice was high and shoulders not so broad.
And now that younger boy is safely stored
Inside the one whose look can stop me cold.

Wreckers: Key West

If wind, humidity, bright sun and salt
help us feel young as they make us look old,
and mid-day drinks do not make us find fault,
but only leave us amorous and bold;
if moats, in fact, diffuse the tide that presses,
on barrier islands up and down the coast,
against the crumbling bricks of fortresses
where prisoners survived who were thought lost;
if chance, not malice, made the ships go down
and wreckers really didn't set false lights,
but looked out from the tower in the town
and cried "a wreck ashore" and saved the lives
before they saved the cargo from the sea,
could there be then some hope for you and me?


A high school English teacher, Katherine Barrett Swett lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. She received a PhD in American Literature from Columbia University. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in various journals including, The Lyric, Rattle, and The Raintown Review. One of her sonnets was chosen as a finalist in the 2016 Nemerov Contest. Her chapbook, Twenty-one was published in 2016.


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The most recent addition to The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline is Rosa Newmarch by Jean L. Kreiling.

Marie Ponsot was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Celebration of the Timeline reaching 75 essays, Lincoln Center, Fordham University (Sponsored by Fordham's Curran Center) Friday, October 20th, 2017.

Charlotte Innes is the recipient of the 2018 Mezzo Cammin Scholarship to the Poetry by the Sea conference.

Rachael Gorchov: Recently I completed a body of work that focused on the landscapes that define suburban office and industrial complexes, contemplating their subtle relationships with the history of landscape painting. When looking at these places I saw English landscape gardens – orchestrated nature that gave way to picturesque landscape painting. I documented my subjects onsite by drawing their reflections in a Claude Glass, a convex black mirror popularized as an observation device in the 18th century. This tool appealed to me for how its skews and bulges its reflection, making my work highly subjective from the start. I then constructed paintings in the studio based on these drawings. The three-dimensional nature of my paintings further emphasized the forced perspective in my initial drawings and required viewers to explore the paintings much like they might explore a physical space by moving around, crouching and craning their necks.

Irregular versions of geometric forms such as cubes, parabolic curves, cones and triangles comprised the dimensional shapes of these pieces and eventually gave way to my working nearly exclusively on concave surfaces and ‘rocks with cast shadows.’ I settled on these structures for a few reasons. When a viewer stands directly in front of the concave works, irregular half-spheres with the convex side attached to the wall, the paintings fill their peripheral vision for an immersive experience. The rocks and shadows, amorphous objects paired with adhesive-backed prints, are reminiscent of portals and geologic abrasions. They invite viewers to question if the dimensional form is emerging from or entering into another space. Like in other works, these pieces frame the physical space the artworks inhabit.

In 2016, I visited Europe where I recognized parallels between the interiors of Renaissance spaces and my own paintings, such as the power that foreshortening possesses in its ability to collapse and intensify space in cathedrals– similar to my Claude Glass works. This experience coincided with a visit to an exhibition in Vienna featuring renderings of synagogues that once stood in the city. This piqued an interest in contemplating architectural space in my work and prompted me to consider architectural language in my own Jewish cultural heritage. I then began a series of tondos, a Renaissance term for circular artworks, of European Jewish architecture.

Beginning with paintings and mixed-media, in these works I build a photographic image that engages the space wherever it is installed, becoming part of the architecture. I arrived at the tondo format through my own history of making non-rectangular paintings, and appreciate its relationship to reliefs and rose windows found in synagogues and cathedrals. In gathering source imagery, I rely heavily on documentation – photographs and engravings as most of these buildings have been destroyed. I contemplate the collective memory images of architectural space can reveal. In this spirit, this work depicts layered environments where scale, color and depth shift ambiguously, revealing experiential space.

I consistently begin works by looking at a particular subject because of an art historical or personal association, and then through a process of extracting details from their surroundings using an accumulation of marks, color and a tactility, I sacrifice specificity of form and place, ultimately revealing a specificity of experience as my subject.

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