james matthew wilsonAmerican Beauty Exhibition, National Gallery, Dublin


The wounded anger in your eyes, last night,
Seemed for the first time and, perhaps, the last,
To cut through every screen of charm, and sight
In me the innards of a sordid past.
“For too long now,” you said, “I’ve thought you were
Not perfect but, well, what you said you were.”

This afternoon, expatriated from
Our homes, our images, our sense of self,
We neither speak nor touch.  The gallery’s hum
Of scrubbed dry air, and the exhibited wealth
Preserve our silence; everything on hold
As what you said distills, abstract and cold.

You stare at the volcanic Cotopaxi,
Those oils flooding toward apocalypse.
And that, or any rupturing scene, seems proxy
For our few months abroad as they collapse.
I go from work to work, these old wares shown,
Till my thoughts rest upon a girl of stone:


Her marble eyes, up close, are clumsy things,
Vertical scratches form an iris, light
Brushwork of paint upon them browns and brings
To definition, in our halted sight
The polish of a pale and laminate cheek,
Whose model sat for Adams one lost week.

But from a middle-distance, eye and neck,
Flowering cheek and pied jewelry,
Her unmoved lips, with neither crack nor speck,
In cold perfection seem warm reality.
Did that young lady on her sculpture stare
Preferring it to her face in a mirror?

This piece, some fifty others from Detroit,
Like us have come to Dublin for a time,
And looking on them, masterful, adroit,
They nonetheless ring a familiar chime
We’d never hear in the museum at home
But which our minds attune to as we roam.


For Adams and his peers the trade of art
Must have itself seemed an imported thing:
Threatening, rarified, and set apart
Like thorned peaks of the Swiss Alps rupturing
Above the weight of clouds.  That archetype
Gave them the forms from which their craft grew ripe.

So, too, that Boston heiress took the lot
To line the new-built corridors of her home.
Her gardens flourish near old pictures bought
From needy seigneurs in a rotting Rome.
By that provincial gift she had devised
Hope Rembrandt someday might be “naturalized.”

Cross town, this genteel figure held her pose
Till Adams’ study of the art refine
Itself and give his tools a tense repose.
His predecessors helped him see a line
(At least he hoped) in that too living face,
Tradition and technique being his sole grace.

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


And yet, on this isle more than any other,
Remembering the five pounds Victoria gave,
And how she came, purblind, contemptuous mother,
But once, carried above each hungry grave,
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 must
Long ago have passed through the grave, may be
The one who fashioned my best self from dust.
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 discerned as much and set his girl
Upon a high and ornate pedestal
Till saved in stone from the decaying whirl
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 new joy and shame’s renewed insistance:
As love and hate, to stall a candid death,
Must idle as they can at middle-distance,
By chance discovering what we all must know:
Intimate knowledge strikes a sudden blow.

Republished with gracious permission of Modern Age.

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Editor’s Note: This is the first poem in a collection of six called On the Shoals.

The featured image comes from the website of the National Gallery of Dublin.

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