Johannes Van Der Meer, (Vermeer), 17th Century
We look at them expectantly: a room
With balance held, a string of pearls, a hand
Placed on the virginal, or there a letter
Clutched to the breast; these women keep
The gentle art of looking artfully
Revealed, yet hidden in the art of space.
They seem absorbed in it and yet leave space
For eyes to linger on them in that room
And wonder what the painter artfully
Kept in or out, things under hand
Or underhand? The surfaces still keep
Us guessing. What could be in that one’s letter
Or that one’s balance? And why does he let her
Appear to weigh up in that pregnant space
Such a wealth of meaning only to keep
It from us in that sunlit room?
Are we – the viewers – meant to have a hand
In them and come to see what artfully
Has been concealed? That View of Delft is artfully
Conceived yet not depicted to the letter
But deftly rearranged, the painter’s hand
Adding the unknown of space,
A brooding sky providing all the room
To rise above the secrets buildings keep…
Or take elsewhere that crenellated keep
Of brick (its outside walls so artfully
Salt-leached) allowing us again the room
To wonder if they hold that letter
Or else the string of pearls in all that space
Held in The Little Street. Whose was the hand
That let the children out of doors or hand
That pressed the collars, urging them to keep
The clothes clean, as she hurriedly made space
To meet the lover artfully
Returned from sea or merchant whose last letter
Had news that left her trembling in that room?
How artfully he let us have a hand
In them and keep us guessing in the space
Between a letter and a sunlit room.
N.S. Thompson writes: “I have always admired the sestina and for years thought about writing one before I finally did. What intrigued me was the way the six words at the ends of lines could be worked into a sensible whole; indeed, made into a resonant whole while yet showing the variety of meanings those words could take. It seemed the perfect vehicle for exhibiting, as it were, a gallery of pictures as we see in Vermeer’s several depictions of women going about their everyday activities, each different but forming a whole. A view of life that was both evident to the observer and yet at the same time hidden. What were those women thinking as they went about their business? What was fascinating was the mystery he created in the representation of everyday life.
The nearest analogy I can think of in visual terms to reading a sestina is the way a kaleidoscope works, even if there the succession of patterns there is endless, but the variation is surprising and pleasurable. It is also playful. There are little touches in the poem of such playfulness, as in “deftly” in the fourth stanza which is an anagram of Vermeer’s home town of Delft “adding the unknown”, which is the “y” (as in algebra).
And it took a long time to get right. I first produced a version after watching a television programme about Vermeer. I jotted down my six end words and quickly filled out the six stanzas, then the three last lines incorporating the six words again, hopefully with yet another semantic turn on them. I felt very pleased with myself until I read the result the next day. It then took several years of careful homing, plus several changes of end words until it finally seemed to be a natural expression that did not call attention to itself as a deliberate construct. This seems to me the necessary requirement of a sestina. Other repetitive forms can flaunt their patterns overtly, but for me the sestina has to be more subtle and almost disguise itself until the reader finally notices the form.”
N.S. Thompson lives near Oxford, UK. A poet, critic and translator, he is also the non-fiction editor for Able Muse. Two recent pamphlets are After War (New Walk Editions) and Ghost Hands (Melos Press), and he has a poem in the imminently available latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Lost Love’. ‘The Women in Delft’ is published in the poet’s collection Mr Larkin on Photography and Other Poems (Red Squirrel Press, 2016).