Today’s poem is “Turning the Corner I Saw You” by Mark Melnicove. Mark is the author of two ekphrastic poetry collections—Sometimes Times, with printmaker Terry Winters, and GHOSTS, with painter Abby Shahn. He teaches English and creative writing at Falmouth High School.
He writes: “One day, a few years ago, I wandered into the Gillian Rotunda of the Portland Museum of Art and came upon Hiram Powers' marble bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It startled me because it seemed as if Longfellow, himself, transported by the magic of art, was in the chamber. I began a conversation with him right away before his apparition could fade. My poem records what transpired between us. Everything he said and some of what I uttered was lifted from his poetry.”
Turning the Corner I Saw You
by Mark Melnicove
after Hiram Powers, Bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Circa 1870), Portland Museum of Art
Turning the corner I saw you—
white—very, very white.
“Mr. Longfellow,” I said, “Dear Henry,
of the matrilineal Wadworths,
what are you doing here on display,
sheltered in this ‘beautiful town,
seated by the sea?’
Does it ‘haunt your memory still?’”
I looked to your mouth, frozen open,
and assessed your frame—you had no pupils,
irises, eardrums, arms, legs, breasts, or genitalia.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You have been reduced to a bust.”
‘Things are not what they seem,’ you said
in a whisper. “Is that so?”
I replied. “Is that all you can say,
unoriginally quoting one of your old lines?”
You kept gazing ahead,
through the museum’s blemish-free
walls, down east toward Europe, where you
had traveled when you could weigh
anchor and pay for passage, translating continental
airs into a music you would return to America with.
‘Art is long, and Time is fleeting,’
you mumbled, capitalizing Time,
Germanic-like, to emphasize its gravitas.
“That’s true,” I said, “but aren’t
you carrying this business of art
being long too far?
Look—your blood’s leached out; your pulse is kaput.
How is art helping you now?
Surely, after all this time, more than
15 decades of reposing
on this pedestal, you must have
thought of something new.”
You answered with silence—
I’d say an eternity of silence—
but I don’t want to be accused of employing
dead metaphors in my poetry,
as you were by critics who disparaged your verse,
both to your face when it was fleshy
and after it turned to milky marble.
It was too late to rectify that,
and I felt sad, seeing how you might have wanted
what you could not have,
for you lacked a heart, or if you still had one,
you could not feel it,
encased as it was in stone.
I had foolishly wanted more from you
than you had already spent.
You had become what you had written;
there was no more to be said.
With a wave I backed away, a step at a time,
until I was swept up
by a ‘gale veering my flapping sail,’
and ‘still achieving, still pursuing,’
was blown away into a future light.
Poem copyright ©2019 Mark Melnicove.