Poem of the Week | June 29, 2020

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Artemisia Gentileschi Gives Head to Every Man at Once.”

Katie Erbs received her degree in English from Webster University, with an emphasis in creative writing. Her work has previously appeared in the American Journal of Poetry and has been nominated for the forthcoming Pushcart Prize. She lives in Saint Louis, Missouri and in between writing poems she works at a local branch of the Saint Louis County Library.


Artemisia Gentileschi Gives Head to Every Man at Once

Artemisia says: I carry this head around with me wherever I go.
She says: I cut this head off
using a knife and fork
because I am a lady
and I don’t put my elbows on the table.
She says: I carry this head by the hair
like a handbag.
She says: This is Picasso’s head.
She says: This is Louis XVI’s head.
She says: This is Agostino Tassi’s head.
She says: This is Columbus’s head.
She says: This is Holofernes’ head.
This is Mussolini’s head.
This is Ted Hughes’s head.
This is John Lennon’s head.
Bukowski’s head
still smoking a cigarette.
This is the head of the pope.
This is the head of every man
in a three mile radius
of my home.
This is Brock Turner’s head. She says:
This is Bill Cosby’s head.
She says: This isn’t a head at all.
She says: Time is an illusion.
She says: This is just a soccer ball
in a wicker basket
covered with a towel
pretending to be a head.
She says: This is a painting of a head.
A hologram of a head.
She says: Can this head
get one million likes on Instagram.
She says: This is Jeff Bezos’s head.
This is a Vanderbilt head.
A Walton head.
She says: This head
makes nearly a hundred and fifty thousand dollars
a minute.
She says: This head is rotten.
This isn’t a head at all.
This is a moldy watermelon
folding in on itself.
She says: I am David.
She says: This is Goliath.
She says: I am Susanna.
She says: I am Judith
and I am so goddamn tired.


Author’s Note

I wrote this in the early summer of 2019 in the shadow of all of Artemisia’s art. Mostly her 1620 painting Judith Beheading Holofernes but also Susanna and the Elders. I had been playing around with the idea of a poem about Artemisia Gentileschi for a while—her story just seems so modern. She became a painter at a time when women painters were few and far between. You had to basically be related to a painter in order to get an apprenticeship and Artemisia’s father was a painter. So she’s the only woman in a room full of men. And then she’s raped by a fellow painter. There’s a big sensational trial. They used thumbscrews on her. And then she paints Judith. I don’t know if she was thinking of her rape or her place in male society when she painted, but god is there an anger there. There’s grist. So my head was full of that and then I read Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexual and I realized that I was thinking too hard. You can take yourself seriously, but you don’t have to be serious. You can write about really terrible things and tell a joke in the same line.