Portraiture in Verse



He is languid as a fed lion.
She in her salt and sackcloth gown is gone
Into a wilderness of wind at noon

Where the wonderful covered well of tales
is a dry waterhole

or a bell
Abandoned. What is the sound at noon
of silence in a grain

of sand? It may be what is borne
by her beyond the hollowed bone of thought,
the loud elaborated heart

the salt

and sack-
cloth shadow begging briefly at her back
Her Bedouin back

–Gillian Allnutt

Something amazingly dense is going on here. I love portraits in verse, from Homer to Homer Simpson and especially those that need long calculated moments or days to unravel.

1. If there were any paintings to accompany this poem, Henri Rosseau’s eerie The Sleeping Gypsy comes to mind.
2. Salt and Sackcloth “frame” the beginning and end, though their arrangements within the stanzas are different. Why is her sackcloth gown replaced by a shadow? Why do her clothes have to beg? Very arresting obstacles throw in the way of comprehension…
3. That perplexing riddle in the middle stanza, worse than a Russian puzzle box: “what is the sound at noon of silence in a grain of sand?” is answered by something completely else, beyond a “hollowed bone of thought”, the “loud elaborated heart”. I like the way thought itself (and by extension the reader’s comprehension) is carried and hustled, like one of Scheherazade’s tales within tales, through the air and environment, through the human physiology, but arriving inexorably back to the start… her salt and sackcloth garments. What does it all mean?

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