Inspired by Rembrandt

Head of an old man with curly hair

Head of an old man with curly hair
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1659

He has put away his hands and sealed his lips –
which anyway you can hardly see beneath the rabbinical
beard – as if he no longer needs to gesture or speak,
as if now his gaze is speech enough. And it is,

even with his eyelight dimmed (the light source lies
behind him in the room, maybe a transom or a small
dormer in midwinter). An old man’s window, like his eyes,
ears, mouth, takes in less and less of the world, until

finally none; no sunroof in a sepulchre, no skylight
in a tomb. Yet within this frame, in what photons
persist, his stare arrests, accosts us – not pensive, weary
as we first misread (scrolling past the old, as we do)

but urgent, facetiming us from light years off,
his patience lessening, shaded eyes demanding:
What are you doing there subtracting yourself
from the light? Or constraining your view

to the blue dormer of a screen that you stare into
as if to glimpse a future you’re already, frankly,
giving away. You the self-unseen, you the self-
eclipsed. If it’s not your screen, it’s the mirror. I

hold my breath for you all. It pains me to watch, even
this far removed. Your young are worst off, clearly,
though for them I still feel hope; it is not so hard to be happy,
billions have managed before you, and with far less.

I’ve managed. True, my day is mostly spent, and
here too there’s no reckoning the lonely, the broken.
But my world is dirty, poor and dim. What could be the reason
in your case? On you sit, staring at shadows!

My judgment may seem hasty, my tenor rude,
but the eleventh hour is every hour, as any old man
can vouch. I stand by every word, though I’ve spoken
none aloud. (He has sealed his lips, put away his hands,

and now his eyes, too, conclude.)

© 2019 Steven Heighton

Steven Heighton, Artsci'85, MA’86 (English), is the author of 14 books, most recently a novel, The Nightingale Won't Let You Sleep (Penguin). He received the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 2016 for The Waking Comes Late (Anansi). This spring, his poem “Christmas Work Detail, Samos” was shortlisted for the 2019 Moth Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes in the world for a previously unpublished poem.

Artist’s statement

What we see in a work of art stems from our own life experiences. Just as we recognize ourselves when we look in a mirror, we can recognize flashes of our past experiences when contemplating art. With art acting as a mirror for the viewer, deep introspection can occur as we analyze one piece of art to the next, recognizing parts of ourselves in each one.

These two mixed-media illustrations aim to grapple with this concept by playing with reflection and duplication. I started by creating hand-rendered sketches using pencil crayon and gouache, then manipulated them digitally. These two pieces organically developed after viewing Rembrandt’s Head of an Old Man with Curly Hair and sitting with my thoughts for a long while.

About the artist

Em Harm is a designer and illustrator in Kingston, Ontario. She is inspired by everything from unique textures to fine minimalist lines. She has a formal education in fashion design from Ryerson University and is currently completing an MA in Cultural Studies at Queen's University, focusing on inclusive design and accessibility. Em likes working with a variety of materials (e.g., textiles, spray paint, watercolour) depending on what each project inspires. Website:

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