A Painter Painted
Portrait or nature morte or landscape (nature vivante) –
Pencil and brush make all a still life, fixed,
So that the wind that swept, breath that came hard
Or easy, when wind has dropped, breath has passed on,
The never visible, may stir again in stillness.
Visible both, the painter and the painted
Passed by me, four decades ago. We met,
We talked, we drank, and we went our ways.
This head’s more true than the head I saw.
Closed, these lips tell me more than the lips that spoke.
Lowered, these eyes are better at looking.
A likeness caught? No. Pictor invenit.
Slowly, slowly, under his lowered eyelids
He worked, against time, to find the face grown truer,
Coax it to life in paint’s dead millimeters,
Compose them into nature, in a light
That is not London’s, any hour’s or year’s;
Furrow it, too, with darkness; let in the winds
That left their roads, painter’s and painted’s, littered,
“Brought branches down, scattering feathers, fruit,
Though for a moment only, stopped the bland flow of breath.
And here it hangs, the still life of a head.
Michael Hamburger is a poet and translator. Born in Berlin in 1924 he emigrated to England in 1933. His own collections of poetry include Flowering Cactus (1950). Weather and Season (Longmans, 1963), and Ownerless Earth: New and Selected Poems (Careanet, 1973), and his many distinguished translations include The Poems of Günter Grass (1969), and Friedrich Hölderling: Poems and Fragments (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967, new enlarged edition Cambridge University Press, 1980). His Collected Poems was published in 1984 by Carcanet, followed by Roots in the Air, Anvil, 1991. He was awarded the first European Community Translation Prize in 1990 for Poems of Paul Clan (1988). He received the OBE in 1992.