Sunday, November 8, 2009

Part II: St. Gaudens' Shaking Civil War Relief

NCT and I found the American Wing empty and light, despite the downpour coating the glass roof above us. The Saint-Gaudens exhibit, however, was tucked into a windowless gallery off of the Frank Lloyd Wright room; in fact, exploring the various sculptures and photographs necessitated wandering down one long, twisty, cozily lit hallway. Whether or not the curator's intention was to evoke a nineteenth century evening, I actually enjoyed the presentation and its subsequent ambiance, and not only because the relatively dim lighting made every male bust look like Abraham Lincoln.

My first encounter with Saint-Gaudens was through Robert Lowell's poem "For The Union Dead", which I read as a teenager and whose namesake text is now one of my favorite books (it sleeps next to me on my nightstand). I purchased this particular edition at the Oxfam Bookshop on St. Giles in Oxford several years ago; it's a 1965 Farrar, Straus & Giroux hardcover with a sketch of Saint-Gaudens' Civil War relief on both the title page and dust jacket, and ever since that day it and Hass's Sun Under Wood have been my constant poetic companions.

I used to find, during the months that I spent in Oxford, that America and American poetry weighed more heavily on my mind than either did when I was at home. Then again, figurative speech regarding weight does not quite express what I felt--it seemed, rather, that America and American poetry were somehow on my mind (lightly resting?) in a way that demanded more attention than they did in San Francisco, or in Ithaca, or in New York City. Even when I went through a long Edward Thomas phase in the Fall of 2004, it was through the prism of his relationship with Robert Frost that I thought about his poetry while walking home by University Parks, or along the streets of Jericho.

As a result, because of Oxfordshire evenings spent reflecting on, and questioning whether, and ultimately concluding that "the ditch is nearer", and that, in fact and more than ever, "there are no statues for the last war here", the marriage between Lowell's poetry and Saint-Gaudens' sculpture will last forever for me. On the rare occasions that I walk by the Boston Common, the most recent of which was a brilliantly sunny and freezing March day this year, when the steep brick streets of Beacon Hill lay under a seamless sheet of ice, I always spend a few moments in front of Saint-Gaudens' "compass-needle" lean Colonel Shaw and his "bronze Negroes". Do they all still "await the blessed break"?

Of course, the Met's exhibit only displays a small mock-up of this Relief, but the curator pulled the piece away from the wall so that we could see the misshapen other halves of Shaw's and his soldiers' faces. NCT and I spent more time with Sherman and his winged victory, a contemplative Hiawatha and the ten and twenty dollar gold coins. My distant ancestor Deacon Samuel Chapin threatened to stalk the hall with his furrowed puritanical brow and dark bronze robes. We lingered over the cameos, and then decided to leave for the Central Park Pumpkin festival. "A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders / braces the tingling Statehouse, / shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw / and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry / on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief".

Why would a poet, writing one hundred years after Fort Wagner, and at a period removed from my own time in not only mood and perspective, but even in diction and meter, still weigh so heavily on my mind? Because Lowell felt like a weight as we walked through the Park, and as we watched excited children waiting for the Haunted House by Bethesda Fountain, and eating cider doughnuts while grasping their pumpkins. Wet straw from the Pumpkin Patch lay strewn across the 72nd Street Transverse, and Stebbins' angel drooped her shoulders in the rain.

"He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die--"

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