'Woman Holding a Balance' by Jan Owen | States of Poetry SA - Series Two

after the painting by Jan Vermeer

Two strands of pearls, warm cream, cool blue,
are spilling over a coffer and onto
a crumple of ultramarine against a wall
below a yellow curtain shifting the muted light.
Four gold coins and a silver ducat
wait to be weighed along the table edge,
but the sidelong mirror’s narrow sliver can find
no avarice in its harvest, this calm face:
the soft mouth and downcast eyes are
tender for the scruples of the world.
Her raised right hand is testing the miniature scales,
her left hand’s at the vanishing point,
and on the wall behind, a sprawled Last Judgement
murkily segregates saved from damned.

This seems no cautionary vanitas –
there is nothing in the balance here
but the commerce of light and air;
emptiness equals emptiness in the level pans
the way our moment is aligned with hers:
the chaffer of maids, the scritch of a broom in the hall,
the downstairs tap and squabble and thud
of Klaus repairing a boot, Nienke haggling for cod,
and next-door’s boys at quoits in the lane.

This small room stood when a single spark
sent the Arsenal up ten years before,
along with the whole Second Quarter of Delft;
the immense shudder of sound hit Haarlem.
Death slips easily into a town, a poem.
Jan Vermeer has framed it out of a scene
where time keeps testing true.


One of a series of poems on the paintings of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer of Delft. JJO.

Jan Owen

Jan Owen

Jan Owen lives at Aldinga Beach, fifty kilometres south of Adelaide. Her translations from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal were published in 2015 by Arc Publications. A New and Selected, The Offhand Angel, was published by Eyewear in 2015, and The Wicked Flowers of Charles Baudelaire came out with Shoestring Press in the United Kingdom in 2016. She was awarded the 2016 Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal.

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