I have but one job

I have but one job

A blog about a poem about a painting.

“I have but one job:
to keep you looking, though I’ve snatched the breath
from your throat.”

These lines come from a wonderful poem by Danielle DeTiberus. The poem – The Artist Signs Her Masterpiece, Immodestly – comes from “a series of poems about the artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s work and life.” This particular poem was inspired by Gentileschi’s striking painting Judith Beheading Holofernes.

The poem is as stunning and immediate as the painting itself. It references Gentileschi’s own history as a survivor of rape (and an ensuing court case) and reflects the brutal mastery of her painting technique. I particularly love the way DeTiberus works into this poem ideas about the role of the creator and their relationship to their work. It’s a neat thing for a poet imagining an artist thinking about her work to do.

“I have thought it all through, you see. The folds

of flesh gathered at each woman’s wrist, the shadows

on his left arm betraying the sword’s cold hilt.”

These lines, and others, in the poem show us how detailed and specific art making (in any discipline) must be. Many people assume art making to be done in a welter of disinhibition – the artist as anarchist chucking paint at a canvas or toking on a joint in front of a typewriter or throwing a tantrum during a rehearsal. Too be sure, too much inhibition will kill the creative process, and playfulness and experimentation are important parts of arts practice. But alongside the moments of instinct and imagination, art making is about choice making. You have to think it all through. You have to get the details exactly right: choice of adverbs, shades of colour, angles of limbs, the inflection in your voice on a certain word at a certain beat. If you don’t make the right choices about bringing the right details to life, then your inspiration cannot be conveyed to your readers / viewers / audience.

“Some say they know her thoughts by the meat of her

brow. Let them think what they want.”

These lines are talking about viewers assuming they know what Gentileschi’s Judith is thinking in the scene depicted in the painting because of the expression Gentileschi has painted for her. DeTiberus’ Gentileschi is unconcerned with this in this poem: “Let them think what they want. / I have but one job: to keep you looking…”

The truth of the matter is that you cannot ever control what an audience is going to think or how they will interpret your work. That is simply not within your power. DeTiberus’ Gentileschi is right: an artist has one job and that is to engage their audience. What the audience does with that engagement is up to them. And as a woman, the Gentileschi in this poem is assertive and businesslike in tone; she is not concerned with minding our sensibilities for us. The emotional labour she performs is as an artist portraying a scene, not as a woman pandering to others.

The closing line is pure defiance:

“Ergo Artemitia. I made this—I.”

DeTiberus writes that in painting, Gentileschi, working in an era where female artists were less likely to be supported much less celebrated, and also working as the survivor of rape, “… reclaims her agency through making and naming. Ultimately, then, this poem is an ode to survivors and to Gentileschi’s exquisitely manicured middle finger to the idea that she could be erased or silenced.”

DeTiberus’ Gentileschi has done her one job: she made us look.

DeTiberus has done her one job: she made us think.

 

The Artist Signs Her Masterpiece, Immodestly

Danielle DeTiberus

After Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (Uffizi, 1620)

Because I know what rough work it is to fight off
a man. And though, yes, I learned tenebroso from
Caravaggio, I found the dark on my own. Know too

well if Judith was alone, she’d never be able to claw
her way free. How she and Abra would have to muster
all their strength to keep him still long enough

to labor through muscle and bone. Look at the old
masters try their best to imagine a woman wielding
a sword. Plaited hair just so. She’s disinterested

or dainty, no heft or sweat. As if she were serving
tea—all model and pose. No, my Judith knows
to roll her sleeves up outside the tent. Clenches

a fistful of hair as anchor for what must be done.
Watch the blood arc its way to wrist and breast.
I have thought it all through, you see. The folds

of flesh gathered at each woman’s wrist, the shadows
on his left arm betraying the sword’s cold hilt.
To defeat a man, he must be removed from his body

by the candlelight he meant as seduction. She’s been
to his bed before and takes no pleasure in this.
Some say they know her thoughts by the meat of her

brow. Let them think what they want. I have but one job:
to keep you looking, though I’ve snatched the breath
from your throat. Even the lead white sheets want

to recoil. Forget the blood, forget poor dead Caravaggio.
He only signed one canvas. Lost himself in his own
carbon black backdrop. To call my work imperfect

would simply be a lie. So I drench my brush in
a palette of bone black—femur and horn transformed
by their own long burning—and make one last

insistence. Between this violence and the sleeping
enemies outside, my name rises. Some darknesses
refuse to fade. Ergo Artemitia. I made this—I.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s