Self-Portrait at 36 w/ David
By Ellen Hagan
Barnegat Light, New Jersey—April 4, 2015
Because looking at myself w/ out you beside me is unnatural
& though the light is all wrong—your camera slung & up
the light feels right to me, warm & soft, your chest pressed
towards my back, both our heads angling towards the dock,
boat slips on the bay—all the scallops secure in the sea still,
their bone-less bodies soft. & our own getting softer each day.
Sometimes the mirror makes our features fun-house style
& we’re way more old age than the teen age we most times feel,
or the slight of shutter promises supple & smooth, where edge
& ravine & straight up wrinkle have arrived & settled in
like vulnerable house guests we don’t have the heart to kick out.
How comfortable they’ve become all over our fine faces
& my neck—how they’ve become familiar w/ our privacy. How
we’ve begun to cradle them. Stitch & loom. In the photograph
there we are—chins tilted towards one another, mouths closed
& turned up. A type of satisfaction dead in this middle we’re both in.
Self-Portrait on the Street of an Unnamed Foreign City
By Jennifer Grotz
The lettering on the shop window in which
you catch a glimpse of yourself is in Polish.
Behind you a man quickly walks by, nearly shouting
into his cell phone. Then a woman
at a dreamier pace, carrying a just-bought bouquet
upside-down. All on a street where pickpockets abound
along with the ubiquitous smell of something baking.
It is delicious to be anonymous on a foreign city street.
Who knew this could be a life, having languages
instead of relationships, struggling even then,
finding out what it means to be a woman
by watching the faces of men passing by.
I went to distant cities, it almost didn’t matter
which, so primed was I to be reverent.
All of them have the beautiful bridge
crossing a grey, near-sighted river,
one that massages the eyes, focuses
the swooping birds that skim the water’s surface.
The usual things I didn’t pine for earlier
because I didn’t know I wouldn’t have them.
I spent so much time alone, when I actually turned lonely
it was vertigo.
Myself estranged is how I understood the world.
My ignorance had saved me, my vices fueled me,
and then I turned forty. I who love to look and look
couldn’t see what others did.
Now I think about currencies, linguistic equivalents, how lopsided they
my reflection blurs in the shop windows.
Wanting to be as far away as possible exactly as much as still with you.
Shamelessly entering a Starbucks (free wifi) to write this.
About These Poem:
When writing about “Self-Portrait on the Street of an Unnamed Foreign City,” Jennifer Grotz said, “Ut pictura, poesis: as with painting, so with poetry, the saying goes, and perhaps this is why from time to time poets, like painters, use the exercise of the self-portrait to practice seeing. If either the poet or the painter is lucky, sight leads to insight. In this unabashedly autobiographical poem, I use a shop window on a busy street, not a mirror, to view myself, and though my poem aims for truthful precision, I think it renders what, I’m convinced more and more, poems are meant to achieve, that is: registering what it feels like to pass through time.” I agree that poems are meant to evoke feelings; it's the main thing that draws me to poetry. A hundred people can read the same poem, and each would probably have a different meaning. We tend to focus on what the “experts,” that is those literature professors and literary critics tell us what a poem is about, but a good poem as in any art form, it speaks differently to each person.
In another self-portraits through poetry, Ellen Hagan presents a very different picture. In her comments on “Self-Portrait at 36 w/ David,” she says, “There is something both jarring and seductive about the aging process—a thrill to be gathering years and moments and history (and hopefully wisdom), but too a railing against the media’s constant perception of youth and how to hang onto it. Writing has forever been a balm against all that keeps me awake at night. I look forward to writing the poems that will surely harness all the years to come.” My grandmother used to always say that you are only as old as you feel. In a way, this poem shows how the author sees herself as a woman who is young at heart, even if she looks older than she feels.
These are two very different portraits and two very different poems in content, though they have some grammatical similarities. Yet both are self portraits and tell how the poet sees herself.