In The Zebra’s Friend I include a ten-line poem, “Portrait Artist.” For those who know my family, it is obvious that I wrote it for my youngest son. Although he has since become a painter as well, he is still “a mapmaker working in charcoal and pastels,” and portraits are what Carl does.
I wanted the poem to be brief and quick, like a sketch, wanted it to be about the relationship of artist to subject more than about the mechanics. Perhaps the artist is first a reader of faces and of hearts; and only then can set about mapmaking of any kind. The poem could as well have been written about any portrait artist. It could even have been written about the character Hannah Jelkes, played by Deborah Kerr in the 1964 version of “Night of the Iguana.” Each time I see that movie, I am drawn to the character of Hannah.
“Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon,” she says to Richard Burton’s character, “Unless it is unkind or violent.” I think it is Hannah, more than any other character in the movie, who sees people as they really are, perhaps from a lifetime habit of quick glances from their faces to the paper on the easel and back again. The portrait artist must possess a great acceptance and understanding of human nature.
About the artist for whom this poem was actually written, he has been much in my thoughts lately. In less than a month from now, Carl and his Kirsty are to be married. Here is the little poem, written long before they met.
All of your studies are portraits,
all of your journeys are those
of the spirit. You step across
landscapes to the far countries
you see in others’ eyes.
Their smiles or somber gazes,
places of joy or hidden hurt,
to you, a mapmaker
working in charcoal or pastels.