Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror Poem Analysis

Summary and Analysis of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is an exceptionally brilliant poem written by the American writer John Ashbery. The title of the poem echoes the name of the painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Francesco Mazzola, better known as Parmigianino. The poem was published in 1974 in the author’s poetry collection of the same name and thus, the painting comes to occupy the subject of this long poem. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror resonates with the theme of self-reflexivity, through the course of which the poet examines the art of creation of poetry in parallel to the self-portrait painting of Parmigianino. Along these lines, the poem offers us a perspective on the shifting worlds of illusion and reality.


Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror | Summary and Analysis

Written in a linguistically odd and complex language, this free-verse poem is composed of six long stanzas. Therefore, the poem does not embody any consistent poetic rhythms nor any rhyming scheme and the narrative style of the poem follows the technique of stream of consciousness. The poem begins with the mention of the self-portrait painting by Parmigianino.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror Analysis, Stanza 1

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand

Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer

And swerving easily away, as though to protect What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams, Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together

In a movement supporting the face, which swims Toward and away like the hand

Except that it is in repose. It is what is

Sequestered. Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself To take his own portrait, looking at himself from that purpose In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers . . . He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made By a turner, and having divided it in half and

Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,” Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait

Is the reflection, of which the portrait

Is the reflection once removed.

The glass chose to reflect only what he saw

Which was enough for his purpose: his image

Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle. The time of day or the density of the light

Adhering to the face keeps it

Lively and intact in a recurring wave

Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.

But how far can it swim out through the eyes

And still return safely to its nest? The surface

Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases Significantly; that is, enough to make the point That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept In suspension, unable to advance much farther Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

Pope Clement and his court were “stupefied”

By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is, Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane, The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind, Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay

Posing in this place. It must move

As little as possible. This is what the portrait says. But there is in that gaze a combination

Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful In its restraint that one cannot look for long.

The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,

Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul, Has no secret, is small, and it fits

Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention. That is the tune but there are no words.

The words are only speculation

(From the Latin speculum, mirror):

They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music. We see only postures of the dream,

Riders of the motion that swings the face Into view under evening skies, with no

False disarray as proof of authenticity.

But it is life englobed.

One would like to stick one’s hand

Out of the globe, but its dimension,

What carries it, will not allow it.

No doubt it is this, not the reflex

To hide something, which makes the hand loom large As it retreats slightly. There is no way

To build it flat like a section of wall:

It must join the segment of a circle,

Roving back to the body of which it seems So unlikely a part, to fence in and shore up the face On which the effort of this condition reads Like a pinpoint of a smile, a spark

Or star one is not sure of having seen

As darkness resumes. A perverse light whose Imperative of subtlety dooms in advance its Conceit to light up: unimportant but meant. Francesco, your hand is big enough

To wreck the sphere, and too big,

One would think, to weave delicate meshes That only argue its further detention.

(Big, but not coarse, merely on another scale, Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom

In relation to the tiny, self-important ship On the surface.) But your eyes proclaim

That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there And nothing can exist except what’s there. There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves, And the window doesn’t matter much, or that Sliver of window or mirror on the right, even As a gauge of the weather, which in French is Le temps, the word for time, and which

Follows a course wherein changes are merely Features of the whole. The whole is stable within Instability, a globe like ours, resting

On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball Secure on its jet of water.

And just as there are no words for the surface, that is, No words to say what it really is, that it is not Superficial but a visible core, then there is No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience. You will stay on, restive, serene in

Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning But which holds something of both in pure Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.

The poem begins with the lines, “As Parmigianino did it, the right hand/ Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer”. The device of enjambment employed by the poet here shrewdly brings forth the first element of the painting that reflects and strikes the viewer’s naked eyes. Precisely, the disproportionately elongated hand of the artist is “bigger” than his head. The poet uses a simile to compare these elongated hands to the “dozing whale”. The use of enjambment in the first line evokes an additional emphasis on the word, “bigger”. Such a description of the portrait suggests the image formation in the convex mirror, used by the artist as a reflective mirror in order to imitate his portrait, to be wider than the object or subject, and thus, to be an illusion of the actual object or subject. This is expressed in the lines, “And swerving easily away, as though to protect/ What it advertises”. The right hand, much bigger than the head, provides the viewer with a tendency to abruptly move back and forth, and for the speaker, this evokes a thought from the side of the artist to “protect” something that it actually advertises, precisely, the illusion that is protecting the reality.  

The speaker catalogs other elements in the painting like, “A few leaded panes, old beams, Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring”, all of which are manifested and “run together/ In a movement supporting the face, which swims/ Toward and away like the hand”. But the face is in “repose”. Herein, the speaker offers the point of view of an element of captivity with regard to the face and later onto the soul of the artist in the portrait painting. The face or the life of the face is “englobed”, suggestive of a restrictive shape, and the speaker further observes in the painting that, “One would like to stick one’s hand/ Out of the globe, but its dimension/ What carries it, will not allow it”. The soul, on the other hand, “establishes itself” in a “recurring wave/ Of arrival”. Yet, the soul is captive, as well.

With the purpose of imitating the reflection of his portrait, the artist sets himself in front of the convex mirror to the “great art to copy”. But the speaker of the poem dismisses this as “Chiefly his reflection” because, “of which the portrait/ Is the reflection, of which the portrait/ Is the reflection once removed”. These lines convey a rhythmic pattern of words using repetitive phrases that highlights the word, “reflection”. This emphasis suggests to the readers, the abundant presence of the element of imitation within this art of creation that will only produce an imprecise or broken reproduction of images as the convex mirror distorts the image in reality and manifests only an illusion of the art of portrait of the artist and thus, the aura of the portrait is lost or rather is in repose and kept in captive. These lines suggest such a connotation, “the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept/ In suspension”, in the frozen time.

But this does not mean the poet dismisses the portrait painting as a failure because of a lack of movement. The speaker metaphorically compares the longing for freedom for the captive soul with that of the “sighing of autumn leaves”, wherein, they toss back and forth and rhythmically flow with the wind, expressing an abundant movement. But, “The soul has to stay where it is”, and it can only move “as little as possible”, once again, resonating with the shade of longing for freedom and thus, the element of captivity. Yet, the portrait painting offers a gaze that perfectly combines to express the “tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful”, where all of these feelings invoke an interruption, a denial to closure and captivity and thus, resonates with an abundance of movement. This bestows with the form of the painting, contradictory feelings of emotions that offers us an expression that cannot be resolved and neither can be formulated. In other words, this portrait painting sways the speaker of the poem with its force of a kind of unresolvable presence which is expressed in the final lines of this stanza, “Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning/ But which holds something of both in pure/ Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything”.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror Analysis, Stanza 2

The balloon pops, the attention

Turns dully away. Clouds

In the puddle stir up into sawtoothed fragments. I think of the friends

Who came to see me, of what yesterday

Was like. A peculiar slant

Of memory that intrudes on the dreaming model In the silence of the studio as he considers

Lifting the pencil to the self-portrait.

How many people came and stayed a certain time, Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you Like light behind windblown fog and sand, Filtered and influenced by it, until no part

Remains that is surely you. Those voices in the dusk Have told you all and still the tale goes on

In the form of memories deposited in irregular Clumps of crystals. Whose curved hand controls, Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds Like the last stubborn leaves ripped

From wet branches? I see in this only the chaos Of your round mirror which organizes everything Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty, Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.

I feel the carousel starting slowly

And going faster and faster: desk, papers, books, Photographs of friends, the window and the trees Merging in one neutral band that surrounds Me on all sides, everywhere I look.

And I cannot explain the action of leveling, Why it should all boil down to one

Uniform substance, a magma of interiors.

My guide in these matters is your self,

Firm, oblique, accepting everything with the same Wraith of a smile, and as time speeds up so that it is soon Much later, I can know only the straight way out, The distance between us. Long ago

The strewn evidence meant something,

The small accidents and pleasures

Of the day as it moved gracelessly on,

A housewife doing chores. Impossible now To restore those properties in the silver blur that is The record of what you accomplished by sitting down “With great art to copy all that you saw in the glass” So as to perfect and rule out the extraneous

Forever. In the circle of your intentions certain spars Remain that perpetuate the enchantment of self with self: Eyebeams, muslin, coral. It doesn’t matter

Because these are things as they are today

Before one’s shadow ever grew

Out of the field into thoughts of tomorrow.


The second stanza begins with the shift of thoughts of the speaker from the portrait painting of Parmigianino, conveyed in the lines, “The balloon pops, the attention/ Turns dully away”. This stanza describes the fleeting memories that pass as thoughts within the mind of the speaker. He reminisces about yesterday, the time when his friends came to meet him. The speaker attempts to remember the conversations as well, but observes that memories of yesterday are only a slanting or diminishing memory that is compared using a simile in the lines, “Like light behind windblown fog and sand”. The speaker, once again, turns his attention to muse about the painting and points out the process of the art of creation with respect to painting. Capturing the essence of reality before the vision passes away from the eyes of the viewer is contrasted with the process of painting. The speaker visions the “carousel starting slowly/ And going faster and faster”. But, “as time speeds up so that it is soon/ Much later, I can know only the straight way out/ The distance between us”, indicating the point that the artist was only partially successful in discerning and thus, creating the art of imitation of whatever that was reflected in the glass.

Hence, the speaker observes that the purpose of the artist “to perfect and rule out the extraneous/ Forever” or to “perpetuate the enchantment of self with self”, only remains to express “certain spars”. Because the fleeting memory and the constant change and shift of reality with time create a distance that leads to forming memories that are “irregular/ Clumps of crystals”. The momentary element inherent in the concept of time is expressed in the lines that say, “Because these are things as they are today/ Before one’s shadow ever grew/ Out of the field into thoughts of tomorrow”.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror Analysis, Stanza 3

Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted,

Desolate, reluctant as any landscape

To yield what are laws of perspective

After all only to the painter’s deep

Mistrust, a weak instrument though

Necessary. Of course some things

Are possible, it knows, but it doesn’t know

Which ones. Some day we will try

To do as many things as are possible

And perhaps we shall succeed at a handful

Of them, but this will not have anything

To do with what is promised today, our

Landscape sweeping out from us to disappear On the horizon. Today enough of a cover burnishes To keep the supposition of promises together

In one piece of surface, letting one ramble

Back home from them so that these

Even stronger possibilities can remain

Whole without being tested. Actually

The skin of the bubble-chamber’s as tough as

Reptile eggs; everything gets “programmed” there In due course: more keeps getting included

Without adding to the sum, and just as one

Gets accustomed to a noise that

Kept one awake but now no longer does,

So the room contains this flow like an hourglass Without varying in climate or quality

(Except perhaps to brighten bleakly and almost Invisibly, in a focus sharpening toward death–more  Of this later). What should be the vacuum of a dream Becomes continually replete as the source of dreams Is being tapped so that this one dream

May wax, flourish like a cabbage rose,

Defying sumptuary laws, leaving us

To awake and try to begin living in what

Has now become a slum. Sydney Freedberg in his Parmigianino says of it: “Realism in this portrait No longer produces and objective truth, but a bizarria . . . .  However its distortion does not create

A feeling of disharmony . . . . The forms retain A strong measure of ideal beauty,” because

Fed by our dreams, so inconsequential until one day We notice the hole they left. Now their importance If not their meaning is plain. They were to nourish A dream which includes them all, as they are

Finally reversed in the accumulating mirror.

They seemed strange because we couldn’t actually see them. And we realize this only at a point where they lapse Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up

Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape. The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion. Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since

Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed?

Something like living occurs, a movement

Out of the dream into its codification.


The third stanza describes and gives insight into the distortions between dreams and reality, as the painting depicts a dream-like portrait of the artist, with respect to the times of today and tomorrow. The stanza begins with an unsophisticated statement, “Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted”. Herein, the word “uncharted” means, unexplored or undiscovered like the “desolate landscape”. Thus, the speaker compares the time of today to such a landscape and points out that the time of today is “reluctant” to yield to the “laws of perspective” of the painter and therefore, the time of today embodies “stronger possibilities” that can “remain/ Whole without being tested”. This suggests the space offered by the present day to inculcate the domain of dreams that expresses different illusions of possibilities.

The speaker further brings forth to examine one such dream that is bestowed with the gift to, “flourish like a cabbage rose” and thus, which defies the “sumptuary laws” but only to wake us to grasp the harsh reality as nothing but a “slum”. On a day like this, until now “fed by our dreams”, the speaker utters the truth and says, “We notice the hole they left”, as they portray in juxtaposition the strange reality which was pretty distant from the dreams we knit. Such a factor of realism, the poet notes, is lacking in the portrait painting of Parmigianino as the poem alludes to and quotes the Italian Renaissance art historian, Sydney Freedberg. He observes that, even though the portrait offers a lack of objective truth, the painting resists creating “a feeling of disharmony” but rather, “The forms retain/ A strong measure of ideal beauty” because they were “fed by our dreams”. However, the speaker ends this stanza by expressing the idea that there is no need to be “unhappy” about such an “arrangement” as “Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed” and thus, dreams enter into our memories and consciousness and therefore, “Something like living occurs”.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror Analysis, Stanza 4

As I start to forget it

It presents its stereotype again

But it is an unfamiliar stereotype, the face

Riding at anchor, issued from hazards, soon

To accost others, “rather angel than man” (Vasari). Perhaps an angel looks like everything

We have forgotten, I mean forgotten

Things that don’t seem familiar when

We meet them again, lost beyond telling,

Which were ours once. This would be the point

Of invading the privacy of this man who

“Dabbled in alchemy, but whose wish

Here was not to examine the subtleties of art

In a detached, scientific spirit: he wished through them To impart the sense of novelty and amazement to the spectator” (Freedberg). Later portraits such as the Uffizi

“Gentleman,” the Borghese “Young Prelate” and The Naples “Antea” issue from Mannerist

Tensions, but here, as Freedberg points out,

The surprise, the tension are in the concept

Rather than its realization.

The consonance of the High Renaissance

Is present, though distorted by the mirror.

What is novel is the extreme care in rendering

The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface

(It is the first mirror portrait),

So that you could be fooled for a moment

Before you realize the reflection

Isn’t yours. You feel then like one of those

Hoffmann characters who have been deprived

Of a reflection, except that the whole of me

Is seen to be supplanted by the strict

Otherness of the painter in his

Other room. We have surprised him

At work, but no, he has surprised us

As he works. The picture is almost finished,

The surprise almost over, as when one looks out, Startled by a snowfall which even now is

Ending in specks and sparkles of snow.

It happened while you were inside, asleep,

And there is no reason why you should have

Been awake for it, except that the day

Is ending and it will be hard for you

To get to sleep tonight, at least until late.

This stanza begins with the speaker claiming that he is starting to forget the picture and its stereotypes. But yet, the painting embodies “an unfamiliar stereotype”, especially the face of the artist that Freedberg once termed as “rather angel than man”. Even though the speaker recognizes the angelic but strangeness to the face, he observes that “The consonance of the High Renaissance/ Is present, though distorted by the mirror”. And even more, the novelty of the painting lies in “the extreme care in rendering/ The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface”. In other words, the surprise bestowed on the form of the painting is expressed in the element of otherness. This surprise is embraced within the painting that tricks us to conceive the painting as a self-reflective convex mirror more than a self-portrait painting and thus, we are fooled until we realize “the reflection/ Isn’t yours”.

The element of surprise embodied within the painting is seamlessly merged into the art of creation of this poem as the poet employs enjambment on the break line, adding emphasis to the word, “Isn’t yours”, and succeeds to create a shade of surprise.

The element of surprise within the painting, the trickery employed by the artist which fools the viewers, is compared using allusion to one of the Hoffman characters, “who have been deprived/ Of a reflection”. But with respect to the surprise of this painting, the difference from the Hoffman characters is that “the whole of me/ Is seen to be supplanted by the strict/ Otherness of the painter in his/ Other room”. But the surprise of the painting is “almost over” as our realization of it slowly gets absorbed within us and this process is compared using the device of simile to that of the snowfall, “Ending in specks and sparkles of snow”.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror Analysis, Stanza 5

The shadow of the city injects its own

Urgency: Rome where Francesco

Was at work during the Sack: his inventions Amazed the soldiers who burst in on him; They decided to spare his life, but he left soon after; Vienna where the painting is today, where I saw it with Pierre in the summer of 1959; New York Where I am now, which is a logarithm

Of other cities. Our landscape

Is alive with filiations, shuttlings;

Business is carried on by look, gesture,

Hearsay. It is another life to the city,

The backing of the looking glass of the

Unidentified but precisely sketched studio. It wants To siphon off the life of the studio, deflate Its mapped space to enactments, island it. That operation has been temporarily stalled But something new is on the way, a new preciosity In the wind. Can you stand it,

Francesco? Are you strong enough for it? This wind brings what it knows not, is

Self–propelled, blind, has no notion

Of itself. It is inertia that once

Acknowledged saps all activity, secret or public: Whispers of the word that can’t be understood But can be felt, a chill, a blight

Moving outward along the capes and peninsulas Of your nervures and so to the archipelagoes And to the bathed, aired secrecy of the open sea. This is its negative side. Its positive side is Making you notice life and the stresses

That only seemed to go away, but now,

As this new mode questions, are seen to be Hastening out of style. If they are to become classics They must decide which side they are on. Their reticence has undermined

The urban scenery, made its ambiguities

Look willful and tired, the games of an old man. What we need now is this unlikely

Challenger pounding on the gates of an amazed Castle. Your argument, Francesco,

Had begun to grow stale as no answer

Or answers were forthcoming. If it dissolves now Into dust, that only means its time had come Some time ago, but look now, and listen: It may be that another life is stocked there In recesses no one knew of; that it,

Not we, are the change; that we are in fact it If we could get back to it, relive some of the way

It looked, turn our faces to the globe as it sets And still be coming out all right:

Nerves normal, breath normal. Since it is a metaphor Made to include us, we are a part of it and Can live in it as in fact we have done,

Only leaving our minds bare for questioning We now see will not take place at random But in an orderly way that means to menace Nobody–the normal way things are done, Like the concentric growing up of days

Around a life: correctly, if you think about it.

This stanza contributes to the idea of the present time in the city life of the poet in contrast to the life of Parmigianino in Rome. Thus, the stanza begins with the lines, “The shadow of the city injects its own/ Urgency”. The location of the city is expressed to be an atmosphere that embraces “urgency” that evokes the bustling life within the city. The poet moves on to describe the biographical details and contexts that situate Parmigianino’s coming to create the self-portrait painting. To this, the poet juxtaposes his own creation of poetry and once again, reverts back from musing at the painting of Parmigianino.

Life within the city is determined through gestures, looks, gossip, and rumors and thus, the speaker challenges the artist and asks him, “Are you strong enough for it”, for “something new” that will arrive, metaphorically, with the blowing of the wind. The speaker observes the negative, as well as the positive side of the wind. The negative side is that, unknown to the wind, it weakens the activity and chills the landscape. Whereas, the positive side of the wind is devoted to the idea that it makes us notice “life and the stresses”. Thus, from this perspective, the speaker challenges the artist as “They must decide which side they are on” and because the painting has been long “begun to grow stale as no answer/ Or answers were forthcoming”.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror Analysis, Stanza 6

A breeze like the turning of a page

Brings back your face: the moment

Takes such a big bite out of the haze

Of pleasant intuition it comes after.

The locking into place is “death itself,”

As Berg said of a phrase in Mahler’s Ninth; Or, to quote Imogen in Cymbeline, “There cannot Be a pinch in death more sharp than this,” for, Though only exercise or tactic, it carries

The momentum of a conviction that had been building. Mere forgetfulness cannot remove it

Nor wishing bring it back, as long as it remains The white precipitate of its dream

In the climate of sighs flung across our world, A cloth over a birdcage. But it is certain that What is beautiful seems so only in relation to a specific Life, experienced or not, channeled into some form Steeped in the nostalgia of a collective past. The light sinks today with an enthusiasm

I have known elsewhere, and known why

It seemed meaningful, that others felt this way Years ago. I go on consulting

This mirror that is no longer mine

For as much brisk vacancy as is to be

My portion this time. And the vase is always full Because there is only just so much room

And it accommodates everything. The sample One sees is not to be taken as

Merely that, but as everything as it

May be imagined outside time–not as a gesture But as all, in the refined, assimilable state. But what is this universe the porch of

As it veers in and out, back and forth,

Refusing to surround us and still the only

Thing we can see? Love once

Tipped the scales but now is shadowed, invisible, Though mysteriously present, around somewhere. But we know it cannot be sandwiched

Between two adjacent moments, that its windings

Lead nowhere except to further tributaries And that these empty themselves into a vague Sense of something that can never be known Even though it seems likely that each of us Knows what it is and is capable of

Communicating it to the other. But the look Some wear as a sign makes one want to

Push forward ignoring the apparent

NaÏveté of the attempt, not caring

That no one is listening, since the light

Has been lit once and for all in their eyes

And is present, unimpaired, a permanent anomaly, Awake and silent. On the surface of it

There seems no special reason why that light Should be focused by love, or why

The city falling with its beautiful suburbs Into space always less clear, less defined, Should read as the support of its progress, The easel upon which the drama unfolded To its own satisfaction and to the end

Of our dreaming, as we had never imagined It would end, in worn daylight with the painted Promise showing through as a gage, a bond. This nondescript, never-to-be defined daytime is The secret of where it takes place

And we can no longer return to the various Conflicting statements gathered, lapses of memory Of the principal witnesses. All we know

Is that we are a little early, that

Today has that special, lapidary

Todayness that the sunlight reproduces

Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe Sidewalks. No previous day would have been like this. I used to think they were all alike,

That the present always looked the same to everybody But this confusion drains away as one

Is always cresting into one’s present.

Yet the “poetic,” straw-colored space

Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting, Its darkening opposite–is this

Some figment of “art,” not to be imagined As real, let alone special? Hasn’t it too its lair In the present we are always escaping from And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days Pursues its uneventful, even serene course? I think it is trying to say it is today

And we must get out of it even as the public Is pushing through the museum now so as to Be out by closing time. You can’t live there. The gray glaze of the past attacks all know-how:

Secrets of wash and finish that took a lifetime

To learn and are reduced to the status of

Black-and-white illustrations in a book where colorplates Are rare. That is, all time

Reduces to no special time. No one

Alludes to the change; to do so might

Involve calling attention to oneself

Which would augment the dread of not getting out Before having seen the whole collection

(Except for the sculptures in the basement:

They are where they belong).

Our time gets to be veiled, compromised

By the portrait’s will to endure. It hints at

Our own, which we were hoping to keep hidden. We don’t need paintings or

Doggerel written by mature poets when

The explosion is so precise, so fine.

Is there any point even in acknowledging

The existence of all that? Does it

Exist? Certainly the leisure to

Indulge stately pastimes doesn’t,

Any more. Today has no margins, the event arrives Flush with its edges, is of the same substance, Indistinguishable. “Play” is something else; It exists, in a society specifically

Organized as a demonstration of itself.

There is no other way, and those assholes

Who would confuse everything with their mirror games Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or At least confuse issues by means of an investing Aura that would corrode the architecture

Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery, Are beside the point. They are out of the game, Which doesn’t exist until they are out of it.

It seems like a very hostile universe

But as the principle of each individual thing is Hostile to, exists at the expense of all the others As philosophers have often pointed out, at least This thing, the mute, undivided present,

Has the justification of logic, which

In this instance isn’t a bad thing

Or wouldn’t be, if the way of telling

Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result Into a caricature of itself. This always

Happens, as in the game where

A whispered phrase passed around the room Ends up as something completely different. It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike What the artist intended. Often he finds

He has omitted the thing he started out to say In the first place. Seduced by flowers,

Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though

Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining He had a say in the matter and exercised

An option of which he was hardly conscious, Unaware that necessity circumvents such resolutions. So as to create something new

For itself, that there is no other way,

That the history of creation proceeds according to Stringent laws, and that things

Do get done in this way, but never the things We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately To see come into being. Parmigianino

Must have realized this as he worked at his Life-obstructing task. One is forced to read The perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose Into the smooth, perhaps even bland (but so Enigmatic) finish. Is there anything

To be serious about beyond this otherness That gets included in the most ordinary

Forms of daily activity, changing everything Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter  Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near Peak, too close to ignore, too far

For one to intervene? This otherness, this “Not-being-us” is all there is to look at

In the mirror, though no one can say

How it came to be this way. A ship

Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor. You are allowing extraneous matters

To break up your day, cloud the focus

Of the crystal ball. Its scene drifts away

Like vapor scattered on the wind. The fertile Thought-associations that until now came So easily, appear no more, or rarely. Their Colorings are less intense, washed out

By autumn rains and winds, spoiled, muddied, Given back to you because they are worthless. Yet we are such creatures of habit that their Implications are still around en permanence, confusing Issues. To be serious only about sex

Is perhaps one way, but the sands are hissing As they approach the beginning of the big slide Into what happened. This past

Is now here: the painter’s

Reflected face, in which we linger, receiving Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned Frequency, but the hues have turned metallic, The curves and edges are not so rich. Each person Has one big theory to explain the universe But it doesn’t tell the whole story

And in the end it is what is outside him

That matters, to him and especially to us Who have been given no help whatever

In decoding our own man-size quotient and must rely On second-hand knowledge. Yet I know That no one else’s taste is going to be

Any help, and might as well be ignored.

Once it seemed so perfect–gloss on the fine Freckled skin, lips moistened as though about to part Releasing speech, and the familiar look

Of clothes and furniture that one forgets. This could have been our paradise: exotic Refuge within an exhausted world, but that wasn’t In the cards, because it couldn’t have been The point. Aping naturalness may be the first step Toward achieving an inner calm

But it is the first step only, and often

Remains a frozen gesture of welcome etched On the air materializing behind it,

A convention. And we have really

No time for these, except to use them

For kindling. The sooner they are burnt up The better for the roles we have to play.

Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand, Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,

The shield of a greeting, Francesco:

There is room for one bullet in the chamber: Our looking through the wrong end

Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately Among the features of the room, an invitation Never mailed, the “it was all a dream”

Syndrome, though the “all” tells tersely

Enough how it wasn’t. Its existence

Was real, though troubled, and the ache

Of this waking dream can never drown out The diagram still sketched on the wind,

Chosen, meant for me and materialized

In the disguising radiance of my room.

We have seen the city; it is the gibbous

Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen On its balcony and are resumed within,

But the action is the cold, syrupy flow

Of a pageant. One feels too confined,

Sifting the April sunlight for clues,

In the mere stillness of the ease of its

Parameter. The hand holds no chalk

And each part of the whole falls off

And cannot know it knew, except

Here and there, in cold pockets

Of remembrance, whispers out of time.

This stanza is the  lengthiest one in the poem and is set to describe the limitations of perspective to the creation of a work of art by an artist. The stanza begins with the sudden shift back to the face of Parmigianino as expressed in these lines, “A breeze like the turning of a page/ Brings back your face”.

This stanza situates the poem as a work of art that expresses another work of art, the portrait painting. Moreover, this is a poem that reflects on the self-portrait painting of an artist to self-reflect on the poet’s creation of a work of art of poetry. Such a sense reflects the readers as well as the poet as an observer of the portrait painting. But the speaker of the poem ends with describing the limitations of the artist who has set himself “With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass”, as the poet believes that the hands of Parmigianino cannot hold “a chalk” and “each part of the whole falls off/ And cannot know it knew, except/ Here and there, in cold pockets/ Of remembrance, whispers out of time”.

The above lines suggest the idea that a work of art cannot acknowledge and establish any creation as a whole. Thus, the poet evokes the possibility of limitations inherent within the artistic expression or the limitations surrounding the attempt to capture the essence, the truth of the artistic creation. Such a possibility, the speaker of the poem states, within a dream, as these lines indicate, “it was all a dream/ Syndrome, though the “all” tells tersely/ Enough how it wasn’t”. Even though the speaker evokes that the painting was real, however, the feeling of “troubled” and “ache”, upon waking from the dream-life, “can never drown out/ The diagram still sketched on the wind”. Thus, finally, the work of art of the portrait painting might suggest a desire to embody an organization out of the chaos, irrespective of the distortion produced by the convex mirror self-portrait. But the poetry, the work of art of the poet, surpasses such a desire and shifts towards the desire to resist any consistent narrative and thus, embraces the poem with movement and leaves the poem with remains of ambiguous notions of art, whether they can succeed in producing true representations.






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