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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