Vermeer in Boston by Denise O’Hagan


Vermeer in Boston


I’d waited decades

To see that knowing glance, forever paused

That letter being permanently written

And that ermine-edged yellow morning jacket.


Yet I found myself, ridiculously,

In the exhibition by accident

Travelled half the world here

For another reason entirely

And stood, clammy palmed and weary

My thoughts haywire, clinging

To another imagined room a mere walk away

Where a team of specialists

Pored over our son

Whose opened chest

Was spread like a canvas

For the surgeons to splatter and daub

And create another version

Of his deformed and failing heart:

Their masterpiece.


And while all this was happening

I met her painted gaze, unflinching,

Wondering, even then, what she’d been writing

(and to whom, and why).

She’d raised her eyes, unblinking

Poised and faintly mocking

Too intelligent, I couldn’t help thinking,

For twenty-first century positivity.

Instead, her Mona Lisa almost-smile

Stayed with me almost all the while

I waited for the phone call

I didn’t feel alone.


And when they’d finished

Eleven long hours later

Applied the appropriate solutions

Brushed away the bloody residue

Hung up their paintbrushes,

It came:

‘Your son is in recovery.’


Still later, on the long flight home,

Juggling pills and international time differences

Her enigmatic expression flew with me

Long after the shadows around her faded

With her writing box and ink-wells,

Her slim stilled quill pen,

The satin ribbons shining in her hair

And the round of her wrist bone

All this slipped away –

Until I saw it later

In a catalogue.


And in one moment     

I was back in Boston with her,

Waiting.


Note: Written after waiting for our son’s open-heart surgery in Boston Children’s Hospital, November 2015. Coincidentally, the nearby Museum of Fine Arts was holding an exhibition on the painters of the Dutch Republic, which included Vermeer’s A Lady Writing.


Originally published in fourWthirty


Denise has a background in commercial book publishing, manages Black Quill Press, and is Poetry Editor for Australia/New Zealand for Irish literary journal The Blue Nib. Her poetry is published widely and has received numerous awards. Her debut poetry collection is published by Ginninderra Press in 2020.

Website: https://denise-ohagan.com/