by Anne Myles
–After the portrait of Mrs. Abigail Levy Franks, attributed to
Gerardus Duyckinck I, ca. 1735
The royal blue of your gown looks like it’s velvet—
such richness to sink into. It reminds me of desire,
which signifies my lavish longing for the impossible.
Your fine skin-warmed linen shows beneath,
a privacy revealing itself in glimpses, like the past.
And the weird technicolor landscape in the window—
that’s the lure of the imagination, as when a child
I swore I could see colors in black-and-white TV.
I’m trying to explain how I’ve worked up the chutzpah
to address you, long-gone matron, cosmopolite,
writer of letters, reader of Dryden, Fielding, and Pope.
As if the hard-edged clarity of Duyckinck’s canvas
were both window and mirror. As if you took me
home to a far-off century—another Jewish woman seeing
the world I knew, how the light falls in narrow streets,
how it flashes on riverine New York. Oh I grasp well
you probably scorn the likes of me—no husband,
no offspring, no observance. But go ahead, nail me
with your judgment–you who called the other ladies
a stupid set of people–and even in that I’ll claim you.
Don’t we thrill to our own wit, our barbed intelligence?
I’m not far off as you believe. Here’s my grandfather
Saul’s portrait–a doctor in your same city, savvy
and zipped lips slipping him in among the machers—
gazing darkly across my room. I promise you
I’ll swoon over your white bosom, weep for your hands
drooping like sad doves, knowing how they held a pen
writing to the London son you’d never see again.
Maybe you won’t catch me bending close to hear
your hidden name, Bilhah, and whisper mine in turn,
Golda. Maybe you won’t notice if I raise your rope of hair,
feeling its heavy waves, as dark as mine once was.
And maybe you won’t sense (though I guess you will)
what draws me in. Your face so calm, so steady, solid
as a hunk of marble, pink-blushed, veined with a smile—
I admire that. But the real reason I keep gazing at it—
your narrow lidded eyes, your jutting ridge of nose,
your brows, your sturdy jaw—is that I recognize my own.
I’ve fiddled down the page for fear of mentioning
our unmentionable Yiddishe punims. What did you think of,
sitting for your portrait, stepping over to the easel to inspect
your rendering—a woman both one thing and another?
What fears of the old world or new, past or yet to come,
did you stuff down the privy-hole? So you could be proud,
Israel’s daughter, border-crosser, noting how Christians
and Jews alike esteemed your family’s faire charecter.
So you could make a place, so you could claim your throne,
you queen of America.