Veritas: Poems after Artemisia, Jacqueline Saphra
Hercules Editions, 2020 £10.00
Dizzying lines, dizzying colours
This is a gloriously rich chapbook. Drawn from paintings to poems, back and forwards, I explored the paintings first. There are fifteen, each with a strength of its own. Some are utterly startling.
A sonnet partners each painting. The last line of each poem becomes the first line in the next. The first fourteen sonnets give rise to a fifteenth made of the first lines of each, strengthening the bind and creating a formal crown.
Sonnet 15 tells the story of seventeenth-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, and partners Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), which also illustrates the front cover. Some of my favourite lines from other sonnets wind up here. Does this make it my favourite? Maybe. It’s a terrific poem, powerfully linked with each painting.
Poems and paintings are foreworded by ‘Artemisia: Life and Reputation’, an introduction written by Dr Jordana Pomeroy. The pamphlet closes with Jacqueline Saphra’s thought-provoking afterword: ‘How Shocking: Artemisia Gentileschi as Role Model and Muse’.
The Annunciation, 1630 keeps pulling me back. In places the painting glows. The accompanying sonnet begins, ‘Veritas. Only the truth reflects and glows’. These are serious poems, but not without humour. In the same sonnet:
Angel Gabriel, well-overdressed, poses
and gestures to the heavens where cherubs
bob their disembodied heads in the dark
and flap unlikely wings, while up beyond,
the holy spirit hangs in mustard murk.
‘Veritas’, ‘truth’— the act of getting at the truth — plays a chilling part in Artemisia’s early life. Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, 1616-17 begins ‘She offers up her truth, immortalised’. Further in —
[…] She orders what she can’t afford:
beloved of all colours, ultramarine
to tint her days, tincture of quick relief
from dark and doubt, a blue of self-esteem
to feed her faith in what she can achieve.
Susannah and the Elders, 1610 is the earliest painting here. I find it chillingly oppressive, but I’m drawn to its strength. The poet’s words bring it alive:
[…] Watch as my lily hands push
against the air, mouth opening to shriek.
The elder puts his finger to his lips. Hush!