"Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus, or The Mulata" by Natasha Tretheway

This poem from 1966 has an epigraph: "after the painting by Diego Velàzquez, ca. 1619." 

The painting is described thusly by curators at the National Gallery of Ireland: "The miraculous event depicted in the background leaves room in the foreground for a display of ordinary kitchen objects, attended by a Moorish servant." This scene from the Christ resurrection story was also painted by Rembrandt and many others.

(A note about the word "Moorish." An online dictionary defines it this way: "Of or relating to the Moors or their culture. Of, relating to, or being a style of Spanish architecture of the 8th to the 16th century, characterized by the horseshoe arch and ornate decoration."—which is telling when juxtaposed with its use in the description above of a person whose presence in a painting seems to be purely symbolic and, shall we say, decorative. For further reading, take a look at this page which states that "Moorish" has long been used as a catch-all reference for indigenous Africans and has no real ethnic or religious significance—also worth noting in the context of this painting.)

I provide this contextual preamble by way of emphasizing how Tretheway has used language to bring alive—might one even boldly say "resurrect"?—the individual personhood of the anonymous and objectified kitchen maid in the painting.

What strikes the reader first about this poem is the concrete physicality of it, the wash of sensory detail that pulls the reader into the world of the image. Vessels, table, copper pot, white pitcher, her hand (mentioned twice), black and red, mortar and pestle, stack of bowls, bulb of garlic, basket, white cloth, rag, white cap. The poet also uses language to move our attention around the "room" of the painting while also noting the physical details of the space: before her, tipped toward us, clutched in her hand, upside down / bent over, at rest in the mortar, angled in its posture, beside it, stain on the wall, size of her shadow, shape of a thumb, framed, behind her, leans into, light...on...her face. The poet uses repetition skillfully to enhance our sense of being in the room, including "she is" / "she's" occurring multiple times, "her hand" twice, and the lovely rhythmic lull of "the mortar / and the pestle at rest in the mortar." "Red" is also echoed in "the color of blood." "White" shows up four times; the use of white in the painting is a major aspect of its composition, of course, but it strikes me that the poet decided to heighten the presence of whiteness in the poem as well, and that the first use of "white" occurs in this phrase: "the white pitcher / clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red" (emphasis mine).

There's also the description of a "basket hung/ by a nail," a visual reference to the familiar image of Christ nailed to the cross. (Given that a black woman is the painting's focal point, and the fact that the poet is a black woman from Mississippi, I also read the use of "hung" at the line break as a reminder of lynchings in the Jim Crow south.)

No single line in the poem ends in a full stop, but the pause following the first line ("She is the vessels on the table before her") brings emphasis to "vessels," which is further emphasized by having no corresponding V consonant sound elsewhere in the poem. (The only other stand-alone consonant in the poem is the J of "Jesus.") Note what the poet has done here, or rather what she hasn't done: not "she is [like] a vessel," which would have further depersonalized the woman in the painting and reduced her to object status, but "she is the vessels"—she is plural, she is everywhere in this image, she is all—a comparison that gives power and universality to the woman while also heightening physicality. And the poem ends, not with any sentiment about Jesus, but with "light" on "her face."

Some of my favorite sounds in this poem: pitcher/mortar/posture, table/nail/stain/shape/framed/face, hand/black/angled/stack/basket/rag/shadow/cap/half, copper pot/posture/garlic/wall/cloth/recalling/falls, bowls/bulb/beside/basket/by/blood, stain/size/shadow/shape, listening/leans/light.

Maybe what's most striking to me about the language of this poem is the choice of verbs, the juxtaposition of "she is" (assertion of being) and "she leans" / "she knows" with all of the verbs that are done to the objects in the image: tipped, clutched, edged, (is) bent, angled, hung, bundled. Even Jesus himself doesn't do anything here, he is done to by the woman's presence: (is) echo(ed), (is) framed.