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Venetian Ceruse by Emma Wells

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

A pliable cancer

blithely swept across faces

of noblewomen

smearing ignorant flesh

with stark virginity;

painting untruths

with wide brushstrokes

of steely white lead;

make-up poison

leeched into skin:

a macabre osmosis.

A sign of wealth

status, prestige;

a white-painted face

meant times indoors

while hired help tilled land.

Venetian ceruse:

the most expensive cosmetic

hiding a price tag of jaded truth:

hair loss

(high forehead:

Elizabethan beauty ideal)

skin defects (scarring/blemishes),

slow poisoning,

probably death.

Even Elizabeth I

allowed her visage to be cast,

framed by lily-white foreboding;

its application constant

to hide smallpox scars –

a fated fatality

lurked outside chamber doors

swaying on soundless steps

to a dowdy dirge

paving a route

to lay in state

at Westminster Abbey.

Symbolic of aristocracy

even donned by men;

many fell foul

of its spectral illusion.

The Countess of Coventry

died at 27: a devout user.

Isabella d’Este, suffered its pangs:

“smeared face”,

“dishonestly ugly”

“dishonestly made up”,

epithets ascribed her.

All victims of vanity.

Its alabaster sinews

tore deep,

clutching souls


stretching back —

to Roman times,

ancient Egypt (kohl) and Greece…

A smooth complexion

of piqued femininity,

with rouged cheeks/lips

strove as perfection;

hollow compliments

dribbled profusely

from adoring mouths:

“fair as snow”,

“bright as moonlight”

These echoey lost words

now encircle the dead;

corpses that are now far from “fair”

are trapped, buried tight

within shrouds of perpetual night.


Emma is a mother and English teacher. She has poetry published in various literary journals and magazines. She enjoys writing flash fiction and short stories also. Emma won Wingless Dreamer’s Bird Poetry Contest of 2022 and her short story entitled ‘Virginia Creeper’ was selected as a winning title by WriteFluence Singles Contest in 2021. Her first novel is entitled Shelley’s Sisterhood which is due to be published in May 2023.



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