Il Signore del Giocondo has paid good money
for a portrait of his wife, so a portrait must be done.
The florins slip easily into the painter’s purse
but not so the paint on the canvas. The woman
is plain as the day is grey, her face weary from
the work of five children. Yet the painter is no fool.
He knows well what a husband seeks in a portrait is not
the wife who stands before him but the woman
she imagines herself to be, the woman they both see
in their imagination. Yet, to masquerade anything
in a beauty not its own insults the imagination of
subject and painter alike. So, the woman sits
while the painter thinks. With a mind for science,
he begins with the equation of what’s before him:
sequences of collinear points, coordinate planes and
geometric circles. Unsatisfied, he knows greater risks
must be taken. He will not place her in the room where
she sits. Instead, he sees behind her a loggia with dark,
pillar bases receding to winding paths, mountains, lakes
and forests. A destination traveled only through the dream
of the eye not the labor of feet. As for the woman,
she requires no dream: relaxed, composed, a soul at ease
in the landscape of her life—more real, the painter thinks,
than the wine in his glass. They both know a smile would
be plaster, an abomination. So, each observes the other
as subject, lets the room mingle their breaths. Together,
they are the bread of silence. Finally, it is the painter
who breaks the spell. He lowers his brush and asks,
What is it that women know about men that men will
never know about themselves?
Unshaken, the woman
pauses, now certain that she is the artist and answers
with a face history will never forget.

(first published in Valparaiso Poetry Review)