Still Life with Self-Portrait

Diane Seuss
Still Life with Self-Portrait, 1663

I look at Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts’s 
Still Life with Self-Portrait and I want to
touch him. I suppose he was a bad man.
Weren’t all men bad back then? Weren’t
women bad as well? Or did they only exist
within the confines of the badness of men
and thus come to be known as good? I have 
existed within the confines of the badness 
of men. Men have existed within the confines 
of my own badness. I’m bad enough to admit 
I liked it when men existed within my badness 
rather than the other way around. 

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts appears
to be the kind of bad man who likes to trick
the eye. He favored trompe l’oeil, optical
illusion. In The Reverse of a Framed Painting
he paints the front of the painting as if
it were the back, complete with wood grain,
framing nails, and a tag—number 36—
seemingly stuck to the painting with sealing
wax. Aside from this, there is no content.
He has offered you his backside and called it
his frontside, has offered you nothing 
and called it something. You’ve known men
like Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts.  

In Still Life with Self-Portrait he paints
a painting of a painting. It is an unremarkable
still life on what seems to be black velvet.
White grapes with a tendril from the vine 
still attached, three peaches, an opened walnut,
and a cut squash. One corner of the velvet
canvas appears to have peeled away from 
the frame on which it’s mounted, exposing
the wall, the wooden frame, and the stitched
hem along the reverse side of the fabric. 
The still life rests on a little shelf he’s painted
to mimic a real shelf. It holds his pipe, his
tobacco jar, his brushes, and two pegs 
on which hang his gummy palette and a rag. 

Alongside the painting of the painting
is a tiny self-portrait that seems to be pinned 
to the wall as one would pin a dead moth
to a display board. It is ostensibly the artist
himself, his thick, black hair brushing the top
of his shoulders, his white collar turned down
beneath his paunchy face, his eyes not meeting 
mine but gazing off over my left shoulder. 
With annoyance? I think he looks annoyed. 
Or he’s creating the illusion of disinterest. 
I’ve known that kind of man. Or he’s thinking,
“This isn’t my real face I’ve painted. She will 
never really know me.” A man said something 
like that to me once: “You don’t know anything 
about me,” a man I’d lived with a long time. 
My whole life I’ve wanted to touch men 
like Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts 
but they will not let themselves be touched.

Diane Seuss’s most recent collection, Four-Legged Girl, was published in October 2015 by Graywolf Press. Her second book, Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, won the Juniper Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. A poem that originally appeared in Blackbird received a 2013 Pushcart Prize, and her poem “Free Beer,” originally published in the Missouri Review, appeared in The Best American Poetry 2014. Seuss is Writer-in-Residence at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.