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Reflection on a Visit to the National Gallery

 

I trolled the Gallery for a picture of a hot day

in summer. Something realistic—a flush face,

the sun beating on the fatigued—

something reminiscent of my miserable summer.

What I found? Enlivened bodies. Immaculate

Florentine Madonnas on bright summer days,

measured, ordered; or else Byzantine Madonnas

enthroned on cool, dimmed panels, staring out

contentedly with mute dry faces. Not even

Leonardo’s Ginevra, in her dark brown dress,

is bothered by the heat—yet in summer

she was. It’s clear; or how else to account for,

behind her, the bright sky and the lush trees?

I saw too the Shaw Memorial, a bronze sculpture

depicting Colonel Shaw, at 25, on a horse,

leading the Fifty-fourth Regiment in a march.

Heavy work for a young colonel, yet he stayed on,

Horseback, austere, unphased by the heat.

Even his soldiers marched patriotically. They were all

African-American, you could make this out (and the

whole thing cast in bronze), yet could not make out

a single sweaty brow on any of their determined faces.

Weren’t they, marching in the 1863 summer,

parched like I was the night before when I woke

at 3 A.M. to gulp my water? I searched the whole museum.

By the end I came up empty, and was annoyed.

I dreaded walking back out in the D.C. June,

and on my way out, in the Dale collection,

I became lonely, too, when I saw a portrait of a

young woman painted by the circle of Jacques-Louis David.

She wasn’t outside, and under the sculpted folds

of her thin white dress, she stared out, at no one in particular.

She looked virginal and more bored by summer

than exhausted by it. I am exhausted by it.

She was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

No one’s so precious.

I left. On the way back

I read Tropic of Cancer on the metro.

When the door opened at my stop

a wave of muggy June air blew into my face.

I put my book away and got out.

Not even Henry Miller, in his Paris bed sheets,

Anonymous, stained, lousy, was so oppressed

by the summer heat. But Cancer’s just a book.

Nothing is so precious.




Eldis Sula

levelheaded: Reflection on a Visit to the National Gallery

 

From the first words of this poem – “I trolled” – we get an idea of the speaker. It’s no surprise the poem starts with “I” (many poems do), but it’s appropriate here because the poem is bent on presenting the speaker as a self-interested blockhead (or at least a really distracted, thirsty guy). At its best, “trolled” brings to mind the passive technique fishermen use to hook large game fish. At its worst, it conjures the internet “troll,” i.e. someone who posts terrible, reactionary things in comments sections on the web. Our speaker here is “trolling” in both senses of the word. He wanders inertly through the National Gallery looking for something to grab him. He is also dismissive, unhappy even, with everything that tries.

 

His Madonnas are either too “Enlivened” or staring too “contentedly” to satisfy him. He can’t relate to a Ginevra de’ Benci who is not “bothered by the heat.” The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, whose back-story is settled comfortably into American consciousness (see: Glory), doesn’t affect him either. In fact, he reflexively belittles it. When he asks “Weren’t they, marching in the 1863 summer, / parched like I was the night before when I woke / at 3 A.M. to gulp my water?,” the answer is an outraged and decided (and capitalized) “NO.” Same goes for the presumption that “Not even Henry Miller, in his Paris bed sheets” was as oppressed by the heat as our troubled speaker. Really? Even the speaker’s reaction to the final painting is trivializing. Just when we think he finds a subject he can commiserate with, he tells us she’s “the most beautiful woman [he’s] ever seen.” Instead of a sense of union in their collective misery, he feels physical attraction.

 

So, why does our speaker seek some representation of “a hot day / in summer?” What impulse draws him to the National Gallery? Is his disaffection a side effect of his failure, or is it art’s failure? A moral of the story might be: for better or worse, art depends on its audience. But, the speaker’s desperation to connect has to count for something. Surely these Florentine, Byzantine, and American artists did not make art to relieve weary 21st century museumgoers from DC’s “oppressive” heat. In pointing this out, the poem suggests our expectations of art, particularly the kind of art we find in museums, may be a bit high (hence the poem’s final line). Can we expect art to satisfy our bodily needs? Of course not. Can we expect art to represent every minute and varied emotional experience humans will ever have? No. Maybe it’s this discomfort and dissatisfaction that compels pen to paper. Maybe when art, history, and Tropic of Cancer fail us, we have no choice but to create something ourselves.

 

Works referenced in the poem:

 

Byzantine Madonnas

Florentine Madonnas

Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci

Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Robert Gould Shaw Memorial

Portrait of a Young Woman in White

Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer

 

 

-The Editors