Ekphrastic Poetry

Portrait of Women in a Blue Tunic

Roman Period c.AD 160-70

Panel painting of a woman in a blue mantle
Roman period

They gave her a painted face to welcome death,
a nip-and-tuck in encaustic fit for eternity:
hieratic blush of madder and white lead,
coiled hair in warm Japan.

Behind the sophistication of coifed curls,
those earstuds of malachite and pearls,
the plaque of carnelian in the dip of her throat,
she stares out full of quiet restraint,

as though she had reigned something wounded in.
No meticulous archaeology discovered her,
just the illegal grubbings
of Theodar Graf, antiquities dealer

with an instinct for a kill,
rifling the hot sands of Fauym and er-Rubayat,
dreaming at night of pale Victorian girls.
I am pleased that he found her.

I’ve been carrying around this museum postcard
for days, struggling to hold her olive-black gaze
across two millennia, trying to interpret
the hieroglyphs of death’s silent grammar,

as if she’d simply slipped –
hair shining in the lamplight –
through a gap in the impermanence of things
to call me away from this visible skin.

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

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