Poetry: Diversions of a Painter | clivejames.com
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Diversions of a Painter

Las Meninas by Velázquez

Near right, the dwarf Nicolasito
Prods to arouse with his black shoe’s
Diminutive and cheeky veto
The mastiff which would sooner snooze.
Next to him, quaintly beatific,
Eyes fixed on some unseen, specific
Point of focus, the squat buffoon
Maribárbola stands immune
To her surroundings. On the left hand,
Before a canvas turned from view,
The artist is included too,
Absorbed in observation, deft hand
Poised with a ready brush to set
Down—what? We do not know as yet.

Mid-foreground, pert with inattention
But still prepared to acquiesce
In this elaborate invention,
Is posed the five-year-old princess,
The setting’s dainty prima donna.
On either side, a maid of honour:
One knelt in tender protocol;
One tilted like a lifeless doll.
On the back wall what seems a painting
(Of king and queen?), alone among
The canvases which there are hung
In shadow, gleams distinctly. Tainting
With day the intimate half-gloom
Which stills that quarter of the room,

An open door presents its splendid
Oblong of light and, watching there,
A chamberlain is held suspended
With fascination of the stair.
The room seems spacious, only cluttered
By these few figures. They have shuttered
All but two windows on the right
Which shed their glow just out of sight.
Behind the doll-like maid a pair of
Superfluous attendants stand—
She, with turned face and gestured hand,
Prattling to him, quite unaware of
Her station. He, oblivious,
Stares at the canvas closed to us.

What is the painting in the painting,
If we could peep around the frame?
What subject was Velázquez feinting
In playing this reflexive game?
In one sense, nothing, for quite clearly,
The work within the work is merely
The canvas back and frame we see.
The full front is a fantasy.
As meaningless to pose the question
As ask what Hamlet might have done
Or said three days before Act One;
As fanciful as the suggestion
A living person could declare
That he is Don Quixote’s heir.

But art begins here to bamboozle.
What seemed a portrait on the wall
At first glance is, on close perusal,
Really a mirror after all.
The silvered king and queen, detected
In glass, turn out to be reflected
From that position where they pose
Beyond the scene the picture shows.
That canvas, then, is their depiction?
So it is they the small princess
And Maribárbola address?
Well, no; this is another fiction.
Those mirror images depict
No couple, but the viewer tricked.

An now you see his game, his clever
Subversion of the paradigm.
He’s playing with you, viewer, whoever
You are, or where, or in what time.
He’s almost starting to unnerve you,
For aren’t you placed within his purview
Precisely where the subject is?
It’s you that hooded gaze of his,
Standing back from the work, assesses
Within the work, or turns towards.
It’s you the portraitist records.
You’re the buffoon’s and the princess’s
Focus. Found out through time, you’re brought
To notice in the Spanish court.

Enough, though, of these artful cruces.
How did he really paint the thing?
Mirrors may answer many uses.
He placed one where the questioning
Spectator stands, in which reflexion
The room lay bare to his inspection:
Dog, dwarfs, princess, maids, chamberlain
Arrested and entranced within
His block of light, and, there to haunt us,
Velázquez too, brush poised before
An edge of frame. But there is more.
The ghost of mirrors comes to haunt us
Now, for the picture that, we know,
Is in the picture has on show

Another easel (and a painter,
Dog, dwarfs, princess, maids, chamberlain,
Servants) which has a picture—fainter
Smaller—which has an easel, in
A spiral traced through time and distance
With its grotesque counterexistence.
Around each corner of a frame
You’ll be confronted by the same,
Chasing Velázquez from this idyll
Of courtly life beyond the rhyme
Of reason, beyond eye and time.
(The only way to solve the riddle,
Cut short the regress, end the doubt?
Reach in and drag that canvas out.)