I first encountered this poem in the Spring 2019 issue of the COA Magazine of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, where poet Bill Carpenter was retiring as the founding faculty member. I fell in love with it immediately -- the sheer relentless craziness of it. In describing it at a presentation he did at Bar Harbor's Jesup Library in May of 2019, he said he had started out to write a sad poem in sympathy with art lovers over the art heist at the Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, but that another poem appeared under that poem, which he likened to the discovery that Vermeer had painted paintings over paintings. This poem came out from under and took over.

But this wasn't the only complexity. The COA Magazine article used one Vermeer painting, "Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid," as the illustration, and while I saw the black-and-white checked floor that he mentions in the poem, I didn't see some of the poems other props, particularly the shelf of salad bowls or the harpsichord. However, when Bill did his library presentation, the slide he used was Vermeer's "A Lady Writing a Letter," which didn't even have the floor, much less the shelf and harpsichord. When I asked him about all this, he responded in what I gather is his characteristically wry fashion: "I kind of pieced that together as needed. The floor is right [in the Maid version] and the harpsichord is from the actual stolen one [painting from the Gardner], I think, 'The Concert.' I don't know where the bowls came from." Well, at least it has the floor.

So I've presented the three paintings in the right hand column for your edification, with a link to their Wikipedia descriptions. Click on them for a larger rendition.


Girl Writing a Letter
Bill Carpenter

PDF; same, formatted for memorization
Atlee rendition
(back to Poetry)

Singer/Songwriter Lori Lieberman has adapted the poem to a song.

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 guards 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.

See also an academic commentary halfway down this page.

Picture used by COA Magazine

Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid

Picture in Bill's presentation

A Lady Writing a Letter

Source of the harpsichord

The Concert