Siglo de Oro

We draw distinctions between life and art,
But barriers break down. To our surprise,
Sancho and Don Quixote analyze
The very book in which they’re taking part–
Pointing out places where the plot’s not clear,
Disparaging the way their author’s shaped
Their characters, until we feel that we’re
Entranced within a story they’ve escaped.


Likewise, in Las Meninas, self-portrayed,
Velásquez looks out at us as we stand
Before the work to which he’s turned his hand.
Behind the princess and a kneeling maid,
He manages perspective, disinclined
To treat us as exterior to the scene,
So that we, in the background’s mirror, find
Ourselves reflected as the King and Queen.


The painting’s surface is itself profound,
And, by the artist’s leave, we might presume
To pass into the picture and the room.
Indeed, already the Infanta, crowned
With light gold hair, invites us with her gaze;
Her female dwarf and second maid appear
To recognize us, while a man surveys
Proceedings from a doorway in the rear.


Illusion meets with similar success
When, at the puppet show, the Don lays waste
To villains made of paper pulp and paste
To save a puppet damsel in distress.
Drama absorbs him, and if now and then
He’s crazily empathic and naïve,
He shows that life is most compelling when
It’s shaped into persuasive make-believe.


Once, in the Prado’s great Velásquez room,
We found a young art student copying
The Maids of Honor and examining
The old enigma of who spectates whom.
As if engaged in visual tit for tat,
He took the Master’s pose and point of view,
While we who watched comprised a group like that
Formed by the princess and her retinue.


Another student, in a world of snow
And winter twilight, reads on to the end
Of Don Quixote; a few flakes descend
Irresolutely to the yard below.
And when the dying Don’s illusions fail,
She weeps and sets the book back on its shelf
And then, in a ruled notebook, starts a tale
Or poem more substantial than herself.


from Toward the Winter Solstice, 2006