Poem of the Week | February 16, 2015
Katherine Smith: "Milk"
This week we offer another poem from our new winter issue, 37.4. Katherine Smith’s poems have appeared in a number of journals, among them The Cincinnati Review, Ploughshares, Mezzo Cammin, Unsplendid, Measure, Gargoyle, The Journal of the Motherhood Initiative, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Atlanta Review, and Appalachian Heritage. Her first book, Argument by Design (Washington Writers’ Publishing House), appeared in 2003. Her second book of poetry, Woman Alone on the Mountain, appeared with Iris Press in Fall 2014. She teaches at Montgomery College in Maryland where she is Poetry Editor for the Potomac Review.
“Milk” was the result of my curiosity about the worried expression on Rembrandt’s face in his self-portrait and an attempt to find a language for that anxiety.
When I visit the National Gallery in DC, I often visit Rembrandt’s self-portrait. The face is so kind, so worried (this is a classic male expression to my mind). Rembrandt lived large. He loved luxury, was a spendthrift and bankrupt who lost a fortune buying exotic objects that inspired him. He also flooded the market with his paintings and the paintings of his pupils, for a time devaluing their currency. He made many mistakes. A lot of them were financial, others romantic. Romantic and financial mistakes are the very stuff of ordinary life. Maybe because I’ve become over time and after many mistakes of my own, a cautious person, mistakes interest me.
Not all losses are the result of bad choice: Rembrandt lost three of his four children before losing his young wife to tuberculosis, a disease carried by milk. She gave birth to their son Titus while ill with tuberculosis and shortly after died. I imagine her breasts still full of milk even as she died of a milk-born illness. I imagine Saskia’s husband Rembrandt van Rijn trying to hold onto the good fortune with which he began life through the material treasures that surround him: his son, his son’s wet nurse and her milky breasts. Finally through drawing trees I imagine the artist’s coming as close as possible to an evanescent and perhaps illusory grace.
“Truth has no currency,” writes poet Tomas Tranströmer. I think there are people for whom this isn’t quite true. Objects can help some people hold on, for a long while. Rembrandt came from a culture that adored material goods: furniture, shells, tiles, copper pots and pans, rich silks. The sixteenth century Dutch made a fetish out of porcelain and oak, satin and emeralds. In the end though, I imagine the artist looking—as who hasn’t in the face of tragedy?—for something “real” to hold onto and finding nothing, other than the grace of his talent, the sun , and milk.
Rembrandt van Rijn
SEE THE ISSUE
Poem of the Week
Sep 13 2021
“The Thing Worth Saving” Katie Bickham
This week’s Poem of the Week is “The Thing Worth Saving” by Katie Bickham! Katie Bickham is the author of two books of poetry: The Belle Mar (Pleiades 2015) and
Poem of the Week
Sep 06 2021
“Possible Consolation of a Brain Scan’s Topography” Carolina Hotchandani
This week’s Poem of the Week is “Possible Consolation of a Brain Scan’s Topography” by Carolina Hotchandani! Carolina Hotchandani is a poet and Goodrich Assistant Professor of English at the
Poem of the Week
Aug 30 2021
“How to Live to Among the Buzzing” Kelli Russell Agodon
This week’s Poem of the Week is “How to Live to Among the Buzzing” by Kelli Russell Agodon! Kelli Russell Agodon is the author of four collections of poetry. Her