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On a Sculpture by Herbert Matthews

Winter 2009 - Vol. 51, No. 1

American Beauty Exhibition, National Gallery, Dublin, 2002.

I

The precise anger in your eyes, last night,
Seemed for the fi rst time and, perhaps, the last,
To cut through every fold of charm, and sight
In me the wrinkled cloths and ragged past.
"For too long now," you said, "I've thought you were
Not perfect but, at least, what you said you were."

This afternoon, expatriated from
Our homes, our images, our veritable selves,
We neither speak nor touch. The gallery's hum
Of scrubbed dry air, and the exhibited wealths
Preserve our silence: artifi cial world,
Where what you said distills, abstract and cold.

You stare at the volcanic Cotopaxi,
Those oils fl ooding toward apocalypse.
But that, or any sublime scene, turns warily
On our few months abroad as they collapse.
I go – from work to work, continue down,
Till my thoughts rest upon a girl of stone:

II

Her marble eyes, up close, are clumsy things,
Vertical scratches form an iris, light
Brushwork of paint upon them browns to bring
Definition amid the consummate
Polish of a pale and laminant cheek,
Whose model sat for Adams one snow-locked week.

But from a middle-distance, eye and neck,
Flowering cheek and pied jewelry,
Her unmoved glistening lips seem to enact,
In cold perfection, warm reality.
Did that young lady on her sculpture stare
Preferring it to her face in a mirror?

This piece, some fi fty others from Detroit,
Like us have come to Dublin for a time,
And looking on them here gives each a slight
Neighborly kinship we would never find
If we walked by them in that old museum's
Brusque familiarity of home.

III

For Adams and his peers the trade of art
Must itself have seemed an imported idea:
Imposing, calcifi ed in unseen thoughts
Of thorned peaks of the Swiss Alps rupturing far
Above the folded skin of clouds. They ripened
Borrowed fantasies to an archetype.

That Boston heiress gathered up the lot
To furnish her covenant of Italian stone.
Her gardens fl ourish near old pictures bought
From needy seigneurs in a rotting Rome.
For that servile gift she will be ever praised
Though Rembrandt hasn't yet been "naturalized."

Cross town, this genteel fi gure held her pose
Till all the academic strains of time
Had found, in Adams' hand, a tense repose.
His predecessors helped him see a line
(At least he hoped) in what seemed living flesh,
And haunted his work into consciousness.

Most difficult work is undergone in fear
Of some misunderstood authority
Whose echoing voice, despite itself, doesn't tear
Obedience from originality:
The distance of a carpet's breadth or sea's
Leaves room for brilliance in naïveté.

IV

And yet, on this isle more than any other,
Remembering the fi ve pounds Victoria gave,
And how she came, a blind and ruffl ed visitor,
But once, carried above the hungry graves,
I know that a small channel's distance lends
Space enough for a murderous ignorance.

The woman standing by me now, as we
Stare on an ageless face whose model has
Long ago passed into her grave, may be
The one who fashioned my best self from ash.
She trusted my words and her eyes to see
What only is while wish meets novelty.
I don't, for that, dare touch her idle hand,
Or peer again into that emptied eye,
But wonder why we come to understand
What grips us more than other passers-by
As disappointing just because it held

Our stare longer than casual stares are held.
Adams knew as much and made his girl
Upon a high and ornate pedestal
Till set off, bodiless, from a wandering world
She seemed but scarcely individual.
And yet I love her painted uncombed hair
Because, I found some imperfection there.

I've often tried to hold an endless breath
Between a dawning thought and dimmed regret:
As love and hate, to shirk a candid death,
Must idle as they can at middle-distance,
By chance discovering what we all must know:
That intimate knowledge comes as a sudden blow.

—James Matthew Wilson

JAMES MATTHEW WILSON is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University and contributes reviews, poems, and essays to many publications, including the Intercollegiate Review, Contemporary Poetry Review, and Pleides, among others.