Torna Atrás

    —from Albino and Spaniard, a Return-Backwards is Born, ca. 1785-1790,       anonymous.

The unknown artist has rendered the father a painter and so
we see him at his work: painting a portrait of his wife—
their dark child watching nearby, a servant grinding colors
in the corner. The woman poses just beyond his canvas
and cannot see her likeness, her less-than mirror image
coming to life beneath his hand. He has rendered her
homely, so unlike the woman we see in this scene, dressed
in the late century’s fashion, a chicqueador—mark of beauty
in the shape of a crescent moon—affixed to her temple.
If I say his painting is unfinished, that he has yet to make her
beautiful, to match the elegant sweep of her hair,
the graceful tilt of her head, has yet to adorn her dress
with lace and trim, it is only one way to see it. You might see,
instead, that the artist—perhaps to show his own skill—
has made the father a dilettante, incapable of capturing
his wife’s beauty. Or, that he cannot see it: his mind’s eye
reducing her to what he’s made—as if to reveal the illusion
immanent in her flesh. Consider the century’s mythology
of the body—that a dark spot marked the genitals of anyone
with African blood—and you might see how the black moon
on her white face recalls it: the roseta she passes to her child,
marking him Torna Atrás. If I tell you such words were born
in the Enlightenment’s hallowed rooms, that the wages of empire
is myopia, you might see the father’s vision as desire embodied
in paint, this rendering of his wife the need to see himself
as architect of Truth, benevolent patriarch, father of uplift
ordering his domain. And you might see why, to understand
my father, I look again and again at this painting: how it is
that a man could love—and so diminish what he loves.

God and Fiction
Notes for a Young Gentleman