Afternoon light falls
on ochres and reds and pale golds.
Velvets and linens and wools
sway heavily in the light
breeze that passes through
this bower of abundance.
The letter she holds has been read before.
Pulling taut the wrinkled sheet she reads
again what she could now recite.
The word on which her gaze falls so intently
reach from the page like a familiar touch,
tender and faint as the delicate script
bleached by the light of this autumn afternoon.
Perhaps it is from an absent husband, running
the trade that brought these rugs a thousand miles,
and bought this fruit, best of harvest, for her table.
Perhaps not. It may be she who has gone away.
Given in marriage beyond what she knew to hope for,
taken from the sound of known feet on the village path,
from a circle of friends gathered to gossip
at the brookside after the day’s tasks,
from the mother who writes her now, wondering
whether, in her grand house, among her servants
and soft garments, she still cares for news from home.
Not even her mother knows how much
she cares: how she is glad that the old, blind cobbler’s
young apprentice is kind to him, and repairs
without a word the vagrant stitches on sole and tongue,
and calls him father; that her sister is learning
to weave and has taken her place reading verses
after the evening meal; that the little hunchback still rides
on the peddler’s cart and laughs back
at the children who laugh at him.
The streets of this city are silent as her ear strains
for familiar sounds. No woman’s voice summons her
in this household where, as yet, there is no babe
to cry or nurse to scold. The man who adores her
knows her only as his lady.
None of them knows how she would like, some evenings,
to lay her coiffed head on a breast broader and softer than her own;
to bake, morning, in a kitchen crowded with bowls and chatter;
to strip off her fine-stitched shoes and wade in a muddy brook
in secret, skirts gathered, with a giggling friend
in the heat and falling light of the afternoon.
In Quiet Light: Poems on Vermeer’s Women by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre