Vuillard: “The Mother and Sister of the Artist”

By W. D. Snodgrass 1926–2009

(Instructions for the Visit)

Admire, when you come here, the glimmering hair   
Of the girl; praise her pale
Complexion. Think well of her dress   
Though that is somewhat out of fashion.   
Don’t try to take her hand, but smile for   
Her hesitant gentleness.
Say the old woman is looking strong   
Today; such hardiness. Remark,
Perhaps, how she has dressed herself black   
Like a priest, and wears that sufficient air   
That does become the righteous.
As you approach, she will push back   
Her chair, shove away her plate
And wait,
Sitting squat and direct, before
The red mahogany chest
Massive as some great
Safe; will wait,
By the table and her greasy plate,
The bone half-chewed, her wine half-drained;   
She will wait. And fix her steady
Eyes on you—the straight stare
Of an old politician.
Try once to meet her eyes. But fail.   
Let your sight
Drift—yet never as if hunting for
The keys (you keep imagining) hung   
By her belt. (They are not there.)
Watch, perhaps, that massive chest—the way   
It tries to lean
Forward, toward her, till it seems to rest   
Its whole household’s weight
Of linens and clothing and provisions   
All on her stiff back.
It might be strapped there like the monstrous pack   
Of some enchanted pedlar. Dense, self-contained,   
Like mercury in a ball,
She can support this without strain,   
Yet she grows smaller, wrinkling   
Like a potato, parched as dung;   
It cramps her like a fist.
Ask no one why the chest
Has no knobs. Betray
No least suspicion
The necessities within
Could vanish at her
Will. Try not to think
That as she feeds, gains
Specific gravity,
She shrinks, light-
less as the world’s
Hard core
And the per-
spective drains
In her.
Finally, above all,
You must not ever see,
Or let slip one hint you can see,   
On the other side, the girl’s
Cuffs, like cordovan restraints;
Forget her bony, tentative wrist,
The half-fed, worrying eyes, and how   
She backs out, bows, and tries to bow   
Out of the scene, grows too ethereal   
To make a shape inside her dress
And the dress itself is beginning already   
To sublime itself away like a vapor   
That merges into the empty twinkling   
Of the air and of the bright wallpaper.

W.D. Snodgrass, “Vuillard: ‘The Mother and Sister of the Artist’” from Selected Poems, 1957-1987 (New York: Soho Press, 1987). Copyright © 1987 by W.D. Snodgrass. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Selected Poems 1957-1987 (1987)

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Poet W. D. Snodgrass 1926–2009

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Painting & Sculpture, Relationships, Arts & Sciences

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 W. D. Snodgrass


W. D. Snodgrass is often credited with being one of the founding members of the "confessional" school of poetry, even though he dislikes the term confessional and does not regard his work as such. Nevertheless, his Pulitzer Prize-winning first collection, Heart's Needle, has had a tremendous impact on that particular facet of contemporary poetry. "Like other confessional poets, Snodgrass is at pains to reveal the repressed, . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Painting & Sculpture, Relationships, Arts & Sciences

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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