Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

by John Ashbery

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises.

In the opening line, Ashbery describes the 1524 painting that shares the poem’s title and with which the poem is in conversation. In this description, Ashbery begins to develop the sense of ambivalence in art that he is interested in exploring throughout the piece. The hand both “advertises” and “protects” the rest of the portrait, a paradox mirrored in the way the portrait itself is both based in realism and distorted.

But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.

Here, Ashbery decries the fact that a painting is limited by the two-dimensional surface of the canvas and that, no matter how profound and masterful a painting is, there is always a part of the viewer’s senses that rebel against this limitation and recognize paintings as something artificial and false. By extension, all art forms and representations are limited in this way: even Parmigianino’s portrait, despite its composition on a convex panel, and Ashbery’s poem itself. While the entire poem is organized around reflections on the painting it shares a title with, through these kinds of reflections, Ashbery blurs the line between art criticism and more general philosophic reflection on the nature of human life. The clash between what’s there and what’s not—what is surface and what is beneath it—is the central tension of the poem.

Today enough of a cover burnishes
To keep the supposition of promises together
In one piece of surface, letting one ramble
Back home from them so that these
Even stronger possibilities can remain
Whole without being tested.

As the poem develops, it becomes increasingly abstract and distanced from Parmigianino’s portrait, though the speaker often returns to it in order to place new topics in conversation. Ashbery is interested in shifts of time and in the differences between individual and collective time, life as it is and life as it’s idealized, and possibility and reality. All of these refer back to the poem’s primary tension: the difference between art and reality, between surface and substance. Ashbery talks of promises as just barely holding together for a moment. The most important possibilities are those that are never tested, the dreams we never pursue and all that only exists in the world of thought and wonder. Ashbery’s position here is nuanced. He neither romanticizes these kinds of dreams nor tries to destroy them. He positions them—and art, and to an extent life in general—as important but unreliable: wondrous, but insubstantial.

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