Girl with a Pearl Earring

Karin Hoffecker

for John

She looks innocently over her shoulder,
dark and wide-eyed, as if startled by
an intrusion. She is alone, radiant against
black canvas. An exotic turban of pale
blue and gold circling her head. Her lips
are a question, parted, moist like the pearl
that dangles from her ear. She knows nothing
of painting in the sixteenth-century, canals
like mirrors, Dutch ships in silhouette.
Where the slant of light through an open
shutter caresses a milk jug, a piece of lace,
a silver flute.

She knows only leaving home. The cloth
of her apron crisp and white. Her cap
starched stiff, folded in an wide brim,
two points around her face. Hidden in
her apron, a blue delft tile, embroidered
handkerchief, a tortoiseshell comb.
She knows only a maid’s life, washing
linen, ironing shirts, her hands chapped
and raw, cracked from the soapy
water. Her arms blistered by the iron.

And afternoons with portraits in a locked
room at the top of the stairs. A room
where she watches him mix colors: black,
ochre, lead white, ultramarine. The smell
of linseed oil lingers in her clothes, on
her skin. She learns to sit without moving,
without thinking. Without being distracted
by his gaze. For hours, light filters on canvas
like sunlight on pearls. Innocence is lost
to the sharp point of a needle penetrating
a fleshy lobe. The crust of blood hidden
beneath the pearl’s luminous glow.

Note: Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring was dubbed the “Mona Lisa of the North” by scholar Ludwig Goldschieder.

Karin Hoffecker teaches in Birmingham, Michigan. She was a finalist for the 2002 James Hearst Poetry Prize at The North American Review. She earned Penumbra Finalist Awards in 2000 and 2002, and a Second Place Award in the 2001 Penumbra Contest. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, among them Passager, The MacGuffin, and The Comstock Review.