Michael Salcman

The Rokeby Venus

She turns her back on us.

Not merely a metaphor

but a woman Velazquez knew,

with the same long curve

to the line of her back that you

have, ending in dimples paired at the spine,

where her flesh is smooth and pink as pearls dissolved

in milk.

No imaginary madrilena,

but the mistress of a marquis, Gaspar de Haro,

who mounted her portrait

on the ceiling of his secret room in Madrid,

her face blurred in the mirror

held by a perfect cherub,

so that his wife

would not know her name and could not see.

Why also turn away?

Was it shame or a debt she felt

the old man was owed or had she guessed

what held the gaze of her painter?

Like him, I almost can’t bear to breathe

before this great medallion of creamy flesh,

before this woman who called to him

even as he nailed her to the canvas.

Did he rationalize what he couldn’t deny

and that is why he painted her

from behind, turning her back just in time

as if to say goodbye?