Sitting for The Mistress
Portrait of Louise Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, French Mistress of Charles II,
posing with her black child servant (detail)
Pierre Mignard, 1682
Blackbird lives inside me – the mistress knows.
She calls me her petite merlette, tells me
I mustn’t worry because inside my black skin
is a soul as white as the pearls she has tied
so tight around my neck. She says I was three
when she washed the devil away and if I do
bad things she’ll have to clip my blackbird wings.
The mistress says I must stand beside her while
Monsieur Mignard makes us up with colours,
that we will be a painting in a gilded frame,
hanging in the halls of the Palace of Whitehall,
her skin lead white against the lamp black of mine.
My head begins to spin and Monsieur shouts,
Tilt your chin up! Look at the mistress, not me!
There are feathers everywhere. I sweep them
into small piles far down below my ribs
and smile like the mistress tells me. She has
a face like stone that never smiles. Parched lips
stretch out across dry teeth and pull my cheeks.
The face very close in my dream was squeezing mine
as if our cheeks would melt, tears trickling over me
and the mouth kissing. Blackbird starts to tremble
and then the feathers blow. They clog my throat.
When I cough them out the mistress laughs,
says I bark like one of the King’s spaniels,
Merlette aboye comme une chien! I count
the clouds still drifting in a painted sky
behind her head till blackbird falls asleep.
Blackbird sleeps while Monsieur Mignard mixes
colours in his pots of clay. My hand’s
too small to hold this shell that’s full of pearls.
If I shake, the shell tips up, the pearls fall,
the mistress will be angry. One red jewel,
two red jewels, three – dripping from her dress.
Blackbird rouses. The mistress rests her arm
across my back, so light a touch, a tickle
on my shoulder. A touch, a lift, strong arm
round my legs, a hand cupped in my armpit,
fingers pressing my back. Blackbird flutters.
Heavy eyes count her back to sleep. One
red jewel, two red – Mistress nips my shoulder.
Look at me and smile, merlette! You’ll spoil the picture!
Blackbird is learning to be still, she watches
Monsieur Mignard as he watches me. The mistress
has blue sleeves that drape like open curtains
the swirls on her golden dress are falling leaves.
The coral chafes my fingers, rough as the blanket
we hide under in the damp room that smells
of the big grey water. At night I push my fist
into my mouth, bite my knuckles till I see
maman. She’s an obechi tree. I claw
at her, my leg reaching to find a foothold
but she’s being dragged away smaller and smaller
and then she disappears. Blackbird wails,
her wings screaming at the criss-cross window.
She thuds down. I suck in breath, stay very still.
Blackbird wants to teach me how to fly
over the palace gardens. There are bitter
berries hidden in the swish of leaves
beside the golden sundial that the mistress
calls les mures de ronce – she rolls the words
like pearls on her tongue. She sits on her velvet stool
and tells me I must be comme une statue.
Blackbird pecks my inside skin so my legs
begin to shake. She spreads her wings, pushes
at my ribcage, whirls into the sky screeching.
I want to stop my ears but my hands are full,
my cheeks sting, and I can’t find Blackbird
until I hear her call Maman, Maman!
You’ve no Maman, I cry, you’re much too wicked.
© Seni Seneviratne
Inspired by a painting in the national Gallery and commissioned in response to the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, this sequence of poems is written in the voice of the “black child servant” of the Duchess of Portsmouth. Given the date of the painting it is evident that the child was a victim of the slave trade, in effect a trafficked/kidnapped child. I wanted to explore the child’s internal world and through that the impact on her of trauma bonding. Reliant on her mistress for safety and security and in the absence of a non-abusive care-giver, the child looks for love and acceptance from a mistress who, in fact, regards her as a possession.