A Divagation on the Self-Portrait

It’s hard for me to come to a poem like Adam Zagajewski’s “Self-Portrait” (included in the latest issue of The Kenyon Review) without thinking of those lines from Charles Wright’s poem “Roma II” (from The Other Side of the River, 1984): “The poem is a self-portrait / always, no matter what mask / You take off and put back on.” Though, for Zagajewski’s poem, perhaps a more appropriate gloss would be the second stanza of one the “Self-Portrait” poems from Wright’s The Southern Cross (1981):

Evening becomes us.
I see myself in a tight dissolve, and answer to no one.
Self-traitor, I smuggle in
The spider love, undoer and rearranger of all things.
Angel of Mercy, strip me down.

Wright’s idea–of the world as the counterpart to or mask of the self and the self as the counterpart to or mask of the world, his idea of the self’s location and dislocation as being almost the same thing–finds some echo in Zagajewski’s opening lines:

Evenings he moves to the window in a rumpled shirt and yawns.
Looks a little different in each picture–his father’s face
invades his own, slightly melancholy face; the short white beard,
his enemies insist, must signify capitulation.
The eyes gaze at the lens with hope. Growing older.

The “short white beard” brings Zagajewski into focus. The poet is looking at and objectifying himself, placing himself in the center of all his attention. He is the world. But, as with Wright, becoming the world draws the rest of the world into the self, stretching and even decentering the self, asking for its capitulation, its dissolution.

Zagajewski’s poem includes a note, giving the date and circumstances of the poem’s composition: “May, 2008, after seeing Eric Fischl’s Self-Portrait.” I don’t know exactly which of Fischl’s paintings Zagajewski’s referring to. I know two paintings whose titles identify them as self-portraits, of one kind or another. There’s the almost comic “Portrait of the Artist” (1988):

And there’s the early (and maybe speculative) “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man” (1984):

Zagajewski’s note suggests that, however obliquely (the “after” is the deflection), this “Self-Portrait” may be an ekphrastic poem, which speaks out of or through the painting. Maybe there’s another Fischl painting called “Self-Portrait” that I don’t know, so I’m left to think about Zagajewski’s poem in relation to these paintings.

Zagajewski isn’t describing the figures, in Fischl’s paintings, and Fischl isn’t painting Zagajewski. Maybe there’s some resonance in the way “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man,” one of Fischl’s early works, suggests that the act of objectifying oneself ages or diminishes one, is a kind of “capitulation,” to use Zagajewski’s word. Or in the way the comic, almost fun-house image of the self in the latter painting suggests that the act of objectifying oneself creates certain distortions.

Or there’s something in the technique, in the Fischlness of a Fischl. In these paintings, the boldness, the strength of the stroke suggests the kind of tension Wright and Zagajewski express: though you can see the figure, the subject, in each of Fischl’s portraits, the paint that composes the figures and the brushstrokes that arrange the paint are all clearly visible. The portrait is a representation of a person, but it is also a painting.

The “poem is a self-portrait / always.” And the self-portrait is always a poem, is always an artifact in which the self may be lost or mislaid. (And maybe this means, too, that the self-portrait is always also an ekphrastic poem (a topic I will explore in a future post)?)

Zagajewski’s closing paragraph moves, through a repeated assertion of the self, to just such dissolution:

in a winter day’s quiet, it is I, bored, resigned,
unhappy, haughty, it is I, daydreaming
like a teenager, dead tired like the aged,
I in the museum, at the seashore, on Krak??w’s main square,
yearning for a moment that won’t show, that hides
like mountain peaks on cloudy afternoons, brightness
finally arrives, and I suddenly know all, know it is not I.