Elicit response

The Portrait

by Zilka Joseph

Inspired by Hippolyte-Jean Flandrin’s 1846 painting "Madame Louis Antoinette Cambourg," at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

1. Madame

You make me wear velvet darker than horses,

drape a blue shawl with gold flowers

over the arm of this brown satin chair

where I sit bare necked, bare shouldered.

Still I wear a tear-drop brooch near my heart,

my mother's pearls on my wrist —

they look like cream in the black bowl of my dress,

then you paint my skin the color of dawn,

and though you pull my hair back

to make my eyes moons

I turn them into evening shadows

drawing darkness like magnets.

I sit as you wish me to, look you in the face

with barely veiled boredom;

so paint as you please, monsieur,

these petal lips will not smile for you.


2. The Artist

Dark-gowned, mild-mannered, pearl finished,

a soft brown chair holds you;

I arrange your turquoise shawl, its gold pattern gentle

as your pale hands draped like silk on black velvet;

your cream and rose shoulders rise like Venus

from waves the color of night, yet your eyes,

madame, dimmed suns they are

and do not smile, do not tell why


they watch me drown like a black moth

in the vortex of their brown pools that seem to see

nothing, yet stab me like two knives

as if I were a picture you wish to destroy.

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