Monthly Archives: July 2023

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand

Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer

And swerving easily away, as though to protect

What it advertises.  A few leaded panes, old beams,

Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together

In a movement supporting the face, which swims

Toward and away like the hand

Except that it is in repose.  It is what is

Sequestered.  Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself

To take his own portrait, looking at himself for that purpose

In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers . . .

He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made

By a turner, and having divided it in half and

Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself

With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,”

Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait

Is the reflection once removed.

The glass chose to reflect only what he saw

Which was enough for his purpose:  his image

Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.

The time of day or the density of the light

Adhering to the face keeps it

Lively and intact in a recurring wave

Of arrival.  The soul establishes itself.

But how far can it swim out through the eyes

And still return safely to its nest?  The surface

Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases

Significantly; that is, enough to make the point

That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept

In suspension, unable to advance much farther

Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

Pope Clement and his court were “stupefied”

By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission

That never materialized.  The soul has to stay where it is,

Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,

The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,

Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay

Posing in this place. It must move

As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.   . . .

–John Ashbery