The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen by Rembrandt


by Linda Pastan

In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
If there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn't many
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we'd opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly. Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother's face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter—the browns of earth,
though earth's most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.


N.A. said…
After such a long time! I don't even remember the question you asked me about this poem. Just remembered it was 'ethics' by Linda Paston...

Anyway, I read the poem quite a number of times, Awais, and I feel that it is about the passage of time... don't know why but that's just my first-hand response. I am sure many meanings will unfold if I think about it for long. inshaAllah. Secondly, I also feel that the poem also seems to suggest that 'ethics' can't really be taught! Although personally I believe that they can be, but the poems seems to suggests otherwise. There's of course much deeper meaning to it. That, I am sure of. Still thinking about it. Will let you know if I come up with something more meaningful.

What do you think?
Awais said…
I get the feeling that the ending, although placed in the context of the ethical question, does not attempt to answer that question, but rather make some different point altogether. Something about the passage of time, maybe. Or perhaps saying that what is dying, or what is coming to its natural end is not meant to be 'saved'/ cannot be saved.
N.A. said…
"Or perhaps saying that what is dying, or what is coming to its natural end is not meant to be 'saved'/ cannot be saved."

:) Exactly this is what I meant when i mentioned the idea of the passage of time. Rather it should be re-phrased as 'helplessness in the face of the inevitability of the passage of time'!

It's really a kind of poem that makes you think. And you see all good poetry does that. It consists of layers and layers of meaning that keep on unfolding itself on every reading!