POEM OF THE WEEK: “Girl Writing a Letter”

vermeer_the_concert-1In my AP training this summer, I learned that many AP teachers have a ritual of students always getting to read and analyze poems on Fridays. The teachers I learned from taught me that this helps students see that poetry is in conversation with all other literature and texts. I figured that I would share poems for us to read, consider, and enjoy (and sometimes these will also be poems that we could teach for our students to read, consider, and enjoy).

(I chose this poem because it was written based on a news event. I think we could teach the news event, too, with a NF text. On March 18, 1990, in Boston, two men disguised as police officers pulled off what remains the biggest art heist in history – handcuffing security guards inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and then taking an estimated $300 million in art. Among them were three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet, and five by Degas.)

Without further ado, here’s our first poem of the week:

“Girl Writing a Letter” by William Carpenter 

A thief drives to the museum in his black van. The night
watchman says Sorry, closed, you have to come back tomorrow.
The thief sticks the point of his knife in the guard’s ear.
I haven’t got all evening, he says, I need some art.

Art is for pleasure, the guard says, not possession, you can’t
something, and then the duct tape is going across his mouth.
Don’t worry, the thief says, we’re both on the same side.

He finds the Dutch Masters and goes right for a Vermeer:
“Girl Writing a Letter.” The thief knows what he’s doing.
He has a Ph.D. He slices the canvas on one edge from
the shelf holding the salad bowls right down to the
square of sunlight on the black and white checked floor.
The girl doesn’t hear this, she’s too absorbed in writing
her letter, she doesn’t notice him until too late. He’s
in the picture. He’s already seated at the harpsichord.
He’s playing the G Minor Sonata by Domenico Scarlatti,
which once made her heart beat till it passed the harpsichord
and raced ahead and waited for the music to catch up.

She’s worked on this letter for three hundred and twenty years.
Now a man’s here, and though he’s dressed in some weird clothes,
he’s playing the harpsichord for her, for her alone, there’s no one
else alive in the museum. The man she was writing to is dead —
time to stop thinking about him — the artist who painted her is dead.
She should be dead herself, only she has an ear for music
and a heart that’s running up the staircase of the Gardner Museum
with a man she’s only known for a few minutes, but it’s
true, it feels like her whole life. So when the thief
hands her the knife and says you slice the paintings out
of their frames, you roll them up, she does it; when he says
you put another strip of duct tape over the guard’s mouth
so he’ll stop talking about aesthetics, she tapes him, and when
the thief puts her behind the wheel and says, drive, baby,
the night is ours, it is the Girl Writing a Letter who steers
the black van on to the westbound ramp for Storrow Drive
and then to the Mass Pike, it’s the Girl Writing a Letter who
drives eighty miles an hour headed west into a country
that’s not even discovered yet, with a known criminal, a van
full of old masters and nowhere to go but down, but for the
Girl Writing a Letter these things don’t matter, she’s got a beer
in her free hand, she’s on the road, she’s real and she’s in love.

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