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October 24, 2016

The Portrait

Before the shutter blinks
the bored photographer can feel
the engaged couple stiffen–
lapse between a lighting-bolt
and thunder. It’s easy.
A train of light streaks into the tunnel
of his lens and comes out
changed. He loves his darkroom
trance, air in an inky lung.
And in the hall
outside: bell-shaped, its lipped rim
pressed to the ceiling, a cream-
colored glass lampshade
is rung by ricocheting moths.

–William Matthews, 1975

COMMENTARY: William Matthews had one of the finest eyes for physical detail of any poet of his generation and also one of the sharpest talents for visual metaphor. In this truncated sonnet, he gives a portrait of a portrait-maker in language full of surprising comparisons. On the macro level, the poem is all surface level description–the stiff couple, the camera flash, the darkroom, the lampshade. On the micro level, however, the lines are alive with striking and somewhat quirky metaphor. The way the lapse between when the couple smiles and shudder blinks is like lightning and thunder, the way the camera flash is “a train of light” going into a tunnel, the way the darkroom is an inky lung, and the lampshade is a bell rung by moths–in all this the superficiality of the “portrait” is belied by the eccentricity (but also aptness) of the metaphors.


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