Fitzwilliam Museum

Young Woman Seated at a Virginal

I am standing in front of a painting of a woman playing the virginal. The instrument is decorated with what appears to be a motif or scene painted onto the dark wood, but the scene is blurred; the artist, Johannes Vermeer, wants to position us at eye level with the woman, so that we might focus on her. There is nothing else in the painting to draw our attention. She is wearing a satin gown, off-white, with a gold shawl enveloping her shoulders and arms; only her lower arms are visible, reaching towards the keyboard. The gown and shawl are not ostentatious, although the satin is opulent, draped in rich folds around her figure. Her body is reduced to two ovals of fabric; Vermeer wants to hide her figure from the viewer, to draw the eye up to her face, her flushed cheeks. She wears a red ribbon in her hair, a shock of colour against the neutral tones. We can see just two pearls from her necklace visible beneath her shawl. They are two perfect rounds of pure white against the darker white of the bare wall. In her novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier describes Vermeer’s pearls as ‘cool and smooth to the touch … and in their grey and white curve a world was reflected’. That’s why Vermeer liked them; they conducted light, acted as a sphere to reflect what was beyond the scene. A little white eye that held multitudes, that bent and refracted what was in front of it, like his camera obscura.

The upper left hand corner of the painting is lighter, suggesting a window we can’t see, illuminating the subject. She looks at us, as we look at her, but her gaze is modest, her eyes slightly lowered. Her gaze is not overtly sexual, as in Vermeer’s other depiction of a girl seated at a virginal.

In that picture, the subject is younger, her expression is more direct, more inviting, and on the wall behind her, there is a painting (a painting within a painting) of a brothel scene. Beside her virginal, there is a double bass waiting to be played. The meaning is clear. But here, it is difficult to say what the woman with the red ribbon in her hair is thinking, if she is comfortable as the subject of the painting. Vermeer allows her privacy; even in our confrontation with her, she gives nothing away, in her dress, in her manner, in her expression. She remains a mystery.

This is the first post based on the recent poetry workshop, The Interior Life, held in conjunction with the Fitzwilliam, as part of their exhibition, Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence. The exhibition ends this weekend:

Indian summer

Why is it that most of my poems are set in winter? I have been told on a number of occasions that my poems are far from cheerful, and maybe the weather that enters them is a metaphor for a particular chill mood. When I do write about summer, it is usually from the perspective of a wintery present, recalling the heat of the past. Maybe that reflects my change of homeland; when I was growing up, summer felt as if it would last forever, days and days of baking heat, and the shift into September and autumn was discernable with that first catch of frost in the air. As an adult, I have lived through summers of rain in this country of ‘temperate’ climate. This year has been no exception; a July and August marred by grey skies. But today, although there is a slight autumnal breeze, it is proper Indian Summer, one last brief foray into holiday brightness before autumn descends.

I am reminded of this, the final poem in my most recent collection. It’s an odd poem which went through numerous drafts, and was rejected by every magazine I sent it to, but for some reason I still like it (at one stage I was even going to call my collection ‘Decorum’, which came from a reference in the penultimate line). My fondness for the poem probably stems from the fact that I remember the context in which it was written very clearly. It was almost exactly four years ago, September 2007. I wrote the first draft while sitting on the steps outside the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. It was lunchtime, and I was taking a break from a workshop I was running in the museum based around their Howard Hodgkin exhibition. Hodgkin often gives his works titles that suggest a time of year, a type of weather. It was one of those fine September days when summer makes a brief comeback, and you wish you could hold off winter for as long as possible. I was reminded of autumn 2005 when I lived in Cambridge, and we went from shirtsleeves to down-filled coats in the course of a day; winter arrived and stayed. But the first month I was there it was glorious, and I still think of the city in the glow of that late summer light. A stern, serious place letting its hair down. And adding to that, those Hodgkin paintings of discovery and passion (some set in India), those hot, fast colours confined in formal frames. How appropriate then to remember that Indian Summer is also a metaphor for a late flowering, or a flaring of something which has been lying dormant.

Indian Summer in the Old City

Sun finds my face, so long in shadow,
drapes me in gold.

Brick softens to flesh, columns that framed our serious lives
are light enough to carry.

Pale boys shed their blacks, flowers
still in bloom.

How could it ever end?

No monument to mark those autumn nights,
pink flowers glowing in the dark core of me.

Stone retains its decorum, cold
under my hand. It will last.