“Mother and Child” by Barbara Lydecker Crane

Barbara Lydecker Crane


“Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia),” a painting by Alice Neel, New York City, 1967

Portrait painting, so long out of fashion,
was all I did. Not by commission—I’d ask
a friend whose face was lined by life and passion
to sit. Then I’d distort a bit: a mask
would simplify and heighten their emotion.
This Harlem neighbor’s eyes are spelling fear
as she holds her baby tightly with devotion
and protection from who could appear
through that open door. I told my story,
how my husband stole our second daughter
and fled the country. I told my friend the gory
gist of losing our firstborn. I caught her
terror as she sat, and watched it spread
into her baby’s eyes, as fixed as dead.

from Rattle #66, Winter 2019
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Barbara Lydecker Crane: “This year I’ve been immersed in writing ekphrastic sonnets about well-known paintings in the imagined voices of their makers. I’ve learned a lot about artists, their works and their personal struggles and determination. During the abstract expressionist era, Alice Neel quietly persevered in her own unpopular style of social realism; she finally gained some recognition late in her life. All the information about her in this poem is accurate, but I do not know how much she confided of her own traumatic life to this young mother. I can almost hear Neel telling her story, though, as I look at the mother’s expression of alarm and her protective hold of her baby.”

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