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A young Dutchwoman, big with child.
We see her from the left, facing the light,
Clutching in her hands a single sheet of paper.

Vermeer has so arranged the space, the light,
The stillness, the shape of the face of the woman,
That our imagination streams to the paper;
We would like to snatch it from her hands,
To know what will become of her and the child –
Whether she has been blessed, or summoned, or left.

Good fiction would seem to demand she has been left,
That these fine chairs, this generous Delft light
Will not keep company with her and her child.
So we sigh, so we prepare to follow the woman
As she loses her looks, the smoothness of her hands,
Doomed to the poorhouse by the single sheet of paper.

Or we can choose what is on the pale cream paper.
We can summon the text from dozens of samples, left
Us by Mrs Woolf, Miss Austen, Henry James. It is in our hands.
We can suffuse the letter with the pure light
Of resurrected love. Or we can arrange that the woman
Is destroyed, by three short lines that speak of another child.

Such is our power, as imaginers. We give her one child,
Or two, or four. We send her the fine laid paper
From her lover in Amsterdam, or from the other woman,
Who also lives in Delft, third street on the left,
And hates her for the gentleness with which light
Falls on her young face, for the grace of those slim hands.

She is stillness itself. She keeps her hands
Close, almost resting on her blue jacket, her belly big with child.
Behind her is a map. Against its parchment a white diamond of light
Which is the folded head of the fateful piece of paper.
The map is of America. At its extreme left
Uncertain chartings of Baja California. Perhaps the woman

Is an explorer. So poised, studious, she is a woman
Ahead of her time. She holds possibilities in her hands,
Dreams of some Van Diemens Land. We are left
Any number of conjurings with letter, woman, child.
But she alone can be sure what is on the piece of paper,
For she has lain long with Vermeer, in that generous Delft light.


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