Poetry in the Convex Mirror

The Debtor in the Convex Mirror
by Susan Wheeler, after Quentin Massys, c. 1514 

He counts it out. By now from abroad there are shillings and real—
Bohemian silver fills the new coins—but his haul is gold, écu au soleil,
excelente, mostly: wafers thin and impressed with their marks, milled
new world’s gold the Spanish pluck or West African ore Portugal’s

slaves sling. The gold wafers gleam in their spill by the scale.

Calm before gale: what bought a sack a century before almost
buys a sack now; the Price Revolution’s to come. A third of a mason’s—
a master one’s—day’s wage funds the night’s wine, Rhine, for his crew
after a big job wraps up. As for dried herring, his day’s wage would buy
fifteen mille for a big do; his workers, just nine—18 stroo. Calm in his
commerce is the businessman, and his wife, their disheveled shelves:
she turns a page; her hands are in God but her gaze is on ange-nobles

and pearls, weights and gold rings—one florin in pan, one in his hand.

[below is the rest of the poem, and then at the end more a few comments of mine].

What sync they are in: calm their regard, luxe, volupté leur mien.
Fur trimmings on jackets, gemstones on fingers—while the
debtor in the mirror has spent what he has on the red hat he’s in.
Prayer book illumined: luxury that, and to ignore: only more.
Calmed by the calculation of interest, though the figure’s been
clear for a good quarter hour, the moneylender withholds it and waits:
the debtor is better with fuzz in his head. In truth, he’s distressed: cares
like the shield impressed in the écu dint the meet of his brow

beneath the red hat. What’s he reading? Or faking? Caught in the
curve of an office’s alarm, an anti- to crime, a drugstore’s big boon
long centuries to come, the debtor—about to receive knell to what
peace he might otherwise recall—worries his page. Ability for

reading silently may not be his; the lender’s wife puts him to shame,
though the shame in this is the least of his shames. In the yard
beyond her waits one of his lienors for the gold of another.
Schoolmarms ahoy. Scrap history, the parable, the prayer of the

illustrated hours she trembles to hold. He’s got his gold, she’s mes-
merized or not by its sheen, the debtor’s lost to our reflecting of him —
but it’s without, a measurement is made — a figure’s gesture on the
gravitate street, the fury of a face in its face, behind the door ajar, the

fingers of the lienor demarcating fast the size of a peck or a pecker
not so. The debt is as large as a giant’s back turning, large as
       a vulcanic forge. And
                                  fragment of the debt imbursed—
                                                                         size of its toy—

intense regard.
Fume individually, fume
borrower, clipper, catcher, coiner, getter, grabber, hoarder, loser,
lover, raiser, spender, teller, thirster—
scrivener lays out upon collateral, but

what has the red-hat? Zero
and then sum.
So here you are.             Master.
These ideas,
said Friedländer, were “common possession, freebooty, fair game.”
A painting by Jan van Eyck eighty years before Massys’, glimpsed

and described in Milan but now lost, was its model: banker and wife;
the portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini in a red hat not unlike Massys’ debtor and,
a year earlier, Arnolfini and his wife at their marriage, we know. In the latter,
the self van Eyck daubed in its own convex mirror (one of four figures),

affixed like a crucifix on the backdrop of wall, rides the conjoined hands
as a charm. But nothing foreshadowed the hand of your own.
Your painter’s (nineteen, set off for Rome with the jewel of his art)
hand in the gem of its bulge, the hand the pope pronto kissed

with commission — a job, you note, never come through.
Genre derives from the devotional: beauty and ange on one side,
deformity by vice on the other, or so said Friedländer. He found the wife’s
full of dispirit, “lofty sadness.” She and her husband are yes tight-lipped.

The palm of the hand, like the open mouth, were Massys’ registries
of emotionality, he wrote, but the souls in this painting have neither.
Sentimentally, it pleases Massys “to feel sorrow, and grief takes on
mild forms.” Worry’s otherwise: Massys’s St. Anthony, elsewhere,

tempted by courtesans, peaks his brows — wild, broken peaks! — same as
the moneylender’s debtor. So much for effects, effects of Massys,
virtuoso, whose pyrotechnics, “new wine poured into old bottles,”
welled “from a kind of nervous energy—in any event, not from the heart.”

The antithesis of artist” (Friedländer, still): this, the debtor to Leonardo,
to Van Eyck, may well have known, knowledge well welling his brows in the
mirror the moneylender ignores.       My guide in these matters is your self,
your own soul permeable by beauty,             and mine not,

not even by the swirling of facts, leveling—
                                                                                how far, indeed,
can the soul swim out through the eyes and still return safely to its nest?

That it be
                                          I cannot leave. Though around me, and the art,
I fail.
was the lookout. She watched the cashier in the convex mirror, and I
watched Jean Shrimpton on the point-of-purchase long before it had
its name. Thérèse:
                                                                  careful, Catholic, pregnant and smoking.
                                        lips                                  lipstick
I took thecylinder in my fingers and slipped it to Christmas.
Thérèse: to the racks,
Seventeen, Tiger Beat. A few moments more and we’d be through the door.

Maybe it was in the painter’s hand, out for a dole

so close with the pope’s promise! –

that he sought a soul.And these coins, fragments of a web—
Mary sat and did not labor, despite her Martha’s sting.
It’s still, tonight. The peepers, out, self-
Sometimes a welling up: I’ve lost
                                       thought in images. Night: a blank.
                          The stars just stars.
             The sternies prick like whin. 
Kid’s bicycle on its rim, under the road lamp chill
                                      as ice.
A soul could be blank as these bald things.
                          Are blank. Or so we thought.

So this much we have: banker and wife, waist-up at table, she

with her prayer-book watching the gold coins spill on the surface
before us. What we see in their clothes is the waist-cinch:
her red seamy bodice, his jacket, furred collars and cuffs.

Behind them, just two shelves: account books and objects—

then, out a window or door, two figures obscured but for

faces and heads, one forefinger and thumb in a U.
In the fore of the table, a diverging mirror, gold frame,
askew. And, by his reflected place, we see, we viewers,
sitting right where we are, a red-hatted man who holds
a book to his chin as though he is sunning. Rather,
he’s reading—or trying, by the fold in his brow.

Real light, long, late-day, slants through the window

above him where a steeple’s filigree’s revealed. And that’s all.
Most agree the red-hatted reader’s the painter; it matches
his portrait from Wiericx’s engraving. The clothing’s

outdated, the banker’s wife’s bodice derives from the portrait

Van Eyck did of his wife Margaret in that weird hornèd hat.
And Saint Eligius, patron of goldsmiths, converter of Antwerp,
in Christus’ scene, had a curved mirror turned toward outdoors.

Copies of Massys come later. They drop the debtor, insert a

messenger. Imitators of Massys update

                                                                                the coins.
that the convex tondo, inside of a painting, was not a dozen a dime—
         not just Massys, not just Van Eyck, it was in the wind blowing,
   in Brabant, in Ghent, Bruges, Anvers, through the Burgundy hold,
                                  fresh off a pub’s haul and into the workshop,
        popping up through the guilds          ghastly cliché it was then.
              we get             ahead            rewind           to the
Lowlands          begin.

Astonishing city. A rube, let’s say Charles, onions in sacks slung on his

back, he a standout in his coarse sayette, enters this Antwerp,
inhales as he draws near the docks. Gulls swoop; three Fuggers, capitalists,
in wool dickedinnen, speaking abreast in deliberate tread, stop him
cold crossing his path. Street stalls of changers, merchants with
crates unloading—fish, sugar—by Spaniards and Danes;

dragomen emitting unrecognizable tongues: such swirl over Charles

in our genre-esque scene. In the movie, we’d hear the THX clok,
hooves in their wary trades forth. What little Charles knows of this
he has heard at the fairs in the mediant towns outlying the western
On the way, there’d been Ghent, its self-satisfied sense. Talk there of
trade throttled by this guild or that, trade nip-and-tuck against

Antwerp, said an oiler in Deinze, up-and-comer is it, if you want

that is. Hub of all nations, market of kings. Nothing there, either, 
to stand in the way of a man with ambition or a star in his bush. 
No, if you’re smart, you’ll go there and quick. Charles had nodded
and drunk from his mug, but the notion then planted by the man
took root. Now, in the pitch of the persons, in the roil of the

Charles sees there the commerce: purposeful, restive, serene—

a trade’s un-self-consciousness, a self-sufficiency in such—
and Charles is impressed. His own small purse, pendant in his
pocket, feels slight but sufficient to one.
Anna Bijns, the young lady
says to him not three days later. She’s forthright as a slip, and at once
he wants the pocket fuller, a past that’s not his. A girl of means, she—
she could show him her whole shelf of books, her writing-room, her
verses that denounce the psalm-sop, Luther. Like his sins are 
worse than ours, she’ll say, to those more worthy of answer.

“Town common to all nations,” Guicciardini later wrote of the city.

“First ‘capitalist’ center . . . in the modern sense,” wrote Chlepner.
When Charles and Massys shared Antwerp its reign had just begun;
each week brought scores of foreigners, folded in like butter,
out to let a household kept kempt in local fashion, clean,
its Dinanderie in order and its linens boiled and hung.

Down Gulden street, the house that’s held by the Hanseatic corn

market; across the way, the square that will become, in a score of
years, the world’s first stock exchange—shops, fragrant with
Portuguese spices, beckon with the latest haul. The merchant
moneylender leans to the obsolescence of his coins—the paper
debts he trades more in leave gold to the unconjoined, sole
debtors like this painter worrying his paper text. Livre tournois,
the French would call them, units of money valued at a Roman
pound, and livre, book: not the first time the two’re confused.

Charles, counting his ducats, catches a red hat from the coin

of his eye, costume of a century before: it’s Massys he sees.
The painter’s off to work in the salt crusted air, preparing
—away from the shadow of a city, siphon, you wrote, of the life
of the studio—
                                                                   his self to be seen.

New York tonight

                                        boils in its heat wave. The sidewalks
burn soles. Haze like a coat warms up the ones out.           Prague
                  The market’s in side-flip. Each day doubling back
the day before,
the stalk that holds coral bells tracing its arbitrary round. Perhaps
the U on the street
                                      is a score.
Principal export:
ask Bernays, he’ll know.           Buy low.
The painter in the mirror wants privacy, not this call that invades
the reading of a book. Your own looked out at us, but mine,
disingenuous, masquerading, stressed and damp — doesn’t; weightier
things on his mind he’s got not. But he only pretends to absorption.
It’s we who discern the privacy he wants, we who can see
what he lacks. It’s as though we’re instructed to trust the lender,
his own fix being more, well, sequestered.
The last century mined focus as a notion, and even here in
a delirium of sorts swabbing its streets,
we tread with the intensity of hounds,
plugged into our earpiece conjointments, or collecting loose change
off of cuffs. Massys’ grimace under-dramatizes our lot.
                                                                              thassright, that’s what
makes genres—
                                                                              pink ribbon, blue bob—
                                                                              thaler for the watched fob.
No, thalers                                       come later.
                                                                                                           Not much,
you prig. 
Later enough.So the grasping soul is unredeemed. Freak accident— 
yeah, guy goes up a hill in thorns, ends up on a stick. 
Not quite, not impaled, more tacked up.           Yeah.
And the grasping soul goes clean.
                                                                             Maybe it’s our internalness
we’re stuck on.
                            O Captain Me, O Consciousness. 
The soul negotiates its right of way,
                                                              O consciousness, 
but not without a bargain struck without. Why all
or nothing, is what Charles thinks, watching the painter disappear
O Captain Me 
                                                     in a costume fit to paint. After all,
Charles doesn’t know the painter’s
                                        In a cloud left by dusty wheels, he
                                                                O captain me, o 
hears a boy call natura naturata! Red (Flemish) herring!
and wells with tears. Impossible           o consciousness
that this he heard, silt eyes silt ears
                          Copper’s up
in an older voice, murmuring, away—strange songs of spring
that reach the rube in worsted wraps, wheels clattering
about his self, while each breath, immarginate,
clangs to differentiate its action from the world’s.
O captain me. 
Sad country sack, negotiant, kneels in the dust to pray.
He crams so much in, Massys. And
then I reached 
that time in life when, all my spices scattered, every story turned 

Every surface filled with hardware, pots, jetons—a collector’s box—
the world impresses back, impresses with a shield or beast or profile
of a noble sort—
the same impressions, though the edges of each coin be irregular and
it being half a century before die standardized.
And even then, this penny black with chewing-gum, that one having
the inside of a shoe, this none but a banker’s roll—the analogy
goes grim. Or is it metaphor, what we strive for, we
poets. Book-makers with the odds of slugs.
                                                                               We don’t need paintings or /
                                                                               and on this too you’re true.
                                                     The man hand-making his U in the yard
knows Massys’s a kite-man, bad risk, a debtor. All glow and show
             and then off
                                                      world, world, world                           with
him. Each time
intent to aliment not only he but they
what comes his way                          gives way.
                          Even tonight, here, stampede of slugs
                                                                                                           in all that
enters here, in
pages strewn, in air report and digit-pulse: his way. The debtor does
not know his debt to the skittering city. The bank of birds up a
skyscraper’s flank. Patience of his creditors. What does a trust in
surfaces ensure but faith that the surfaces move?

Blue surroundings. Your nose, welling in the car mirror’s arc—

my own in the hubcap hull—
What is this but an arrangement of figures on an open field?
But they overlap—and this is the heart, despite Friedländer,the heart of the bind of the debtor: a debt becoming due.
Inveigling the day to take orders from him—such a ray from the
cathedral, still in construction, for which Massys’ metal-work
is said to encircle a well—the red-hatted man pretends.The soul encumbers what no other soul knows? Think again.
The mirror lies between two scales—one banker’s, one maker’s—and Massys is but writ on its glass. It’s the man in the courtyard,
the jig up with fingers, who’ll reckon the dark fundamentals
once the weigh-ins are done. And the world impresses him, too.
The world overlaps them indentures them both.
Car door bangs. Dark
Brooklyn, dark clattering night.
                                        Though the lineage’s strong for the sons of
daughters           don’t carry. They get the short end. The debtor’s
for the false fealty of her deals.
                                                Adept at outline, Friedländer meant. Ready
angle of the
                                                couple’s arms, echo of the angle in the glass.
Her limpid
                                                face lit sole. Debtor’s histrionics, a painter’s
                                                shallow as they go.
Car door creaks its opening, back for a pack
of cigarettes. Side mirror loose, door slam. Wheeled overland
the Venetian goods—and cotton, from Levant—
are writ up
                                       (in the noon sun and portside)
                         and certified lading.
The paper suffices for sugar and salt.

In the words of Humpty Dumpty, “That’s enough to begin with; there are plenty of hard words there.”

It’s really a difficult text, both because of its tricky English (it’s poetry, after all), but also because of the use of many old terms and expressions that are mostly forgotten now. Of course, it also refers to so many details of (art) history, that requires a massive commentary next to it. I don’t claim understanding everything here, but at least I can add a word or two (or a picture) for some clarification.

[  ] As for dried herring, his day’s wage would buy
fifteen mille for a big do; his workers, just nine — 18 stroo.

do – is a old name for a party; it’s used now, too, but rarely; We’re going to a big do this evening.

stroo – is an old Flemish measure for fish catch (500 pieces); earlier we read about 15 mille (=thousands); but for the ordinary workers it’s only 9 thousands = 18 stroo.

[  ] her gaze is on ange-nobles

Angel, or ange / angelot – is a gold coin, minted in France circa 1340s. From 1465 onward Edward IV began minting these coins in England too, where angels replaced  nobles, and initially were called ange-nobles. Here we see one of them, where Perseus scores a sea monster Archangel Michael scores a dragon.

Prayer book illumined that is, with illustrations and ornaments on the margins; for example, here we see the prayer book has a gilded cut. In the mirror we also see the debtor, and his red hat.

écu – is another French coin, familiar from The Three Musketeers;

shield impressed in the écu – is either a cleaver play with words, or the lack of knowledge: écu literally means “shield”, it was embedded on the back of all coins (more precisely, it was royal coat of arms on the shield).

[  ] Caught in the
curve of an office’s alarm, an anti- to crime, a drugstore’s big boon
long centuries to come 

an allusion to the modern semi-spherical (convex) mirrors that are omnipresent today:

[ ] Schoolmarms ahoy-

generally speaking, just “(strict) teachers”, but may be more meaning is intended, not sure.

[ ] Friedländer – probably refers to Max J. Friedländer, an art historian, but may also mean David Friedländer, a Jewish banker who lived in Germany – though three centuries later – and wrote about how it is possible to include Jews int Protestantism (via so-called “dry baptism”). But anyway, I do not know that quote, and not sure what was meant here.

[ ] A painting by Jan van Eyck eighty years before Massys’, glimpsed 

and described in Milan but now lost, was its model: banker and wife;
This refers to the portrait of a banker and his wife, by Jan van Eyck, which was created  in 1440, and which later was mentioned in some sources found in Milan; it’s still not found.

This is the work by another Dutch artist, Marinus van Reymerswaele; though it was created almost a century later (in 1540), it is believed that it may resemble in some way the one by van Eyck. I will write more about these ‘financial portraits’ later. [done]

[ ] the portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini in a red hat not unlike Massys’ debtor

Most likely, the reference here is to another portrait by van Eyck (1435/36):

[ ] a year earlier, Arnolfini and his wife at their marriage, we know.

We do; although it wasn’t a wedding, but betrothal, an engagement.

[ ] Your painter’s (nineteen, set off for Rome with the jewel of his art)

Here I have some doubts, of whether she is not confusing the father (Quentin Matsys) and the son (Jan Matsys); it was the son who travelled (some say, fled) from Antwerp to Italy (I am not sure about Rome, though), but we know nothing about the father. I wrote a bit about the story, when telling about his (the son’s) Bathsheba.

[ ] beauty and ange on one side – besides being a coin, “ange” also means an ‘angel in French, and in this context it may be again a reference to the coins.

[ ] Massys’s St. Anthony, elsewhere,
tempted by courtesans, peaks his brows — wild, broken peaks! — same as
the moneylender’s debtor.

Here I am confused. There is one painting about the temptation of St. Anthony, which is somehow connected to Quentin Masseys (below is only a fragment, but the link goes to the whole picture):

Now, there is an issue here; the figures on this work are painted by Joachim Patinir, another Flemish artist, and and Matsys only created the background.

On the other hand, there is another painting, on the same subject, made by Cornelis Matsys, the second son of Quentin (it’s also only a fragment, showing St.Anthony):

[ ]  Thérèse (Thérèse of Lisieux ?) and Jean Shrimpton (Jean Shrimpton ?) – I know nothing about these two.

[ ] Seventeen, Tiger Beat. – no clue

[ ] out for a dole – means ‘without a job’, dire straits’

[ ] Mary sat and did not labor, despite her Martha’s sting.  – read more here.

[ ] The sternies prick like whin. – need the help of Humpty Dumpty!

[ ] waist-cinch – perhaps, she was just thin.

[ ] In the fore of the table, a diverging mirror, gold frame

Here I would argue: I think, the mirror had a wooden frame, perhaps just gilt; but I am always ready to learn alternative versions.

[ ] it matches
his portrait from Wiericx’s engraving.

This refers to the famous engraving, by Jan Wierix, which allegedly depicts the artist himself.

However, I would say that the similarity is doubtful, and also, the poem describing his life is somewhat a semi-legendary. For example, the poem says that he dropped his earlier craft, blacksmithing, and became an artist to please his his fiancee (and future wife). That’s a well-known myth, nice one, but having little in common with his real life.

[  ] the banker’s wife’s bodice derives from the portrait
Van Eyck did of his wife Margaret in that weird hornèd hat.

Here she talks about this portrait: Jan van Eyck – Portrait of Margaret van Eyck (the artist’s wife) (1439)

The word ‘weird’ is a result of a typical, and painfully familiar, cultural stereotyping.

[ ] And Saint Eligius, patron of goldsmiths, converter of Antwerp,
in Christus’ scene, had a curved mirror turned toward outdoors. 

The inevitable, unavoidable in this conversation, artefact; you can refresh your memory here and then notice that she refers to the old interpretation of the main figure as “Saint Eligius”:

[ ] Anna Bijns – a famous nun, a writer, a teacher – a feminist, as we would say today – from Antwerp, who founded there a school in the in the 1520s.

[ ] Guicciardini – an Italian historian Francesco Guicciardini.

[ ] Chlepner – Ben-Serge Chlepner, the author of the volume Belgian Banking and Banking Theory; didn’t read it (yet?).

[ ] Dinanderie – a nice word, I didn’t know it. In general, it refers to all sort of copper and bronze utensils, not necessarily only the dishes, but rather everything that was put on display on fireplaces and shelves (for example, the tray standing on a shelf in the background of the Money Changer and His Wife could be an example of dinaderie). These things are not used functionally anymore, and served to show off.

Interestingly, the word comes from the name of a small Belgian town Dinant, famous for its brass craftsmen, but now mostly applied to various Turkish, or Egyptian (or broader, Middle Eastern) items of that sort (if to judge by the pictures, at least).

[ ] Livre tournois – livre of Tours, one of the oldest and most widespread currency in France (they started minting them in the 13th century). But the author also plays on the similarity of this word with the word livre, a book in French.

[ ] No, thalers                                       come later. 

Correct: the thalers had been minted from 1518 on (the painting is dated 1514).

(Later, yes, but not by much, adds the “lyrical hero” of the poem.)

[ ] Not much, you prig (= thief).

[ ] natura naturata – this is a reference to Spinoza and his concept of the “passive God.”

[ ] it being half a century before die standardized – I do not know exactly what event they have in mind; apparently, there was a standardization of coinage at some point (die is a stamp used to mint coins).

[ ] such a ray from the 

cathedral, still in construction

This could be a hint to the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, which indeed remained unfinished (it has only one of the bell towers). Taking a walk through the old streets near the cathedral, you can find the view like this one:

that resembles a lone spire in the convex mirror.

PS: This is a very beautiful text, and very useful, too. It’s a pity that every ‘mirror picture’ I am writing about doesn’t have a verse of this sort.  In fact, such poems have double value – not only they provide plenty useful information, but they also demonstrate contemporary projection and cliches (like the one with the Wall Street, in this case). 

LFP: Looking for a Poet (i_shmael?) who would volunteer to write a few poems about some mirrors-in-the-art.



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