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Stranger in a Strange Land-In Rembrandt's Light
Poets and painters carry on a never-ending conversation over the centuries, the imagination of the one kindling the other. One product of that dialogue is a genre of poems devoted to specific paintings. At their best, such poems—Scott Cairns' meditations on two icons, for example, which appeared in this space last year in the November/December issue, or several of the poems in Czeslaw Milosz's anthology, The Book of Luminous Things—remind us of Simone Weil's words: "absolute attention is prayer." Directing our attention to the visible world with an uncanny hyper-clarity, they reveal the invisible.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, a professor of English at Westmont College, has already made a noteworthy contribution to this genre with her book In Quiet Light: Poems on Vermeer's Women. Now she has a new collection, coming from Eerdmans in October, Drawn to the Light: Poems on Rembrandt's Religious Paintings. Here the transaction is more complex. Paintings inspired by words—by the Word—are themselves rendered in new words that they have in turn inspired:
All night they wrestle, locked
in an embrace.
Sheltered by outspread wings,
Jacob leans into the struggle
like a child dreaming
on a mother's lap, thrashing
out his nightmare
while one loath to awaken him
holds him safe.
Wounded, he still hangs on.
Where else would he go?
Here, in the grip of fear
where nothing he knows by day
can save him, he finds his strength.
Self-abandoned, sweating, and asleep,
he is becoming Israel.
In the grip of desire he dares
to demand what only love can give.
Blessing comes at daybreak.
He limps into Canaan on a trembling thigh.
In the book itself, the painting is reproduced: McEntyre's poems invite a fresh look at masterworks that we've ceased to see, their power obscured as much by kitschy overfamiliarity as by museum pieties. The same is true, but even more so, of the texts from Scripture that generated Rembrandt's light.
"The fact that so many of Rembrandt's subjects are biblical certainly ...