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If the painting-within-the-painting, hanging on the wall
behind the standing woman—

with its sinners wailing at Christ’s feet on Judgment Day—
if that might be one way

of looking at it, then the woman herself, who half
obscures the painting, is

another. All we know of her is what we see:
how—weightless, effortless

as flame—she stands to face the lightfall over the umber,
oilcloth-covered table.

How each of the nails on her right hand, at the center of
the composition, burns

like phosphor. How—what word would one use?—beneficent?
her aspect is: the source

of light from beneath her skin, such sweetly sculptural eyelids
and cheekbones, blessing of

her waistline’s fullness. Objects here are neither more
nor less than what they seem

to be: the table, for instance, offering itself—
the ornate carvings of

its vase-shaped legs—to the benediction of her touch,
her left-hand fingertips

alight on its very edge. Or the strand of pearls, with its yellow
satin ribbon, furled

all but unnoticed on the oilcloth there—where three
gold coins, and a silver one,

have casually been placed. The woman focuses
on the equilibrium of

the scales, which contain nothing except sun-glint…. Now
the shadow-hand—the almost

subliminal shadow caressing the left side of her linen
bonnet—lends support

to her head, as she leans gently back against the hand.
Behind her, on the wall,

the Bosch-like spirits writhe in faceless terror. Christ,
in his golden nimbus, floats

above their heads. But it barely registers—the judgment
scene, the reckoning—

as relevant, in light of her, her certitude
suspended in the air

from thumb and index finger…. It won’t come again—
this equipoise between

the figure and the room. Vermeer is thirty-two—
the death-carts creaking through

the black smoke of North Europe. Twenty-four thousand dead
in Amsterdam alone.

In June, the war with England will resume. So it
won’t come again, I’m thinking,

not with such full-bodied ease. But for the moment,
here she stands. Is realized.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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