An episode from 9/28/21: Tonight, I read a poem of mine called “Unfinished Michelangelo.” It was originally published at the Basil O’Flaherty back in 2016. The entire poem takes up Michelangelo’s many unfinished works, but it begins, specifically, talking about his unfinished slave sculptures. You can read the poem below, as well as a longer reflection on it.
I introduce the poem by mentioning how, very often poets and writers (and, I imagine, sculptors and painters) don’t choose their subjects. Holding the two big Italian Renaissance artists in my mind, Michelangelo is far more interesting to me, as human being and an artist, than Leonardo da Vinci. But it’s da Vinci’s life, not Michelangelo’s, that got a ten page (and still unpublished) poem out of me.
The impossible bodies of apostles, messiahs and slaves,
statues that couldn’t have stood had he finished them,
faces half buried in membranes of marble
that threaten to swallow and take them back;
bodies climbing without hands or feet or legs
out of the mineral morass in the great struggle for birth:
a nearly headless body, torso only,
drowning in stone and digging itself from the grave,
its maker showing our true form, unfinished and flowing and perpetually Protean,
never an end and only beatific struggle.
Or just the notebook pages of body-part sketches
some beautiful killing floor of floating limbs,
practice-shoulders or torsos of livid musculature,
legs and poses and twisting masses of flesh,
stomach and waist and a turned back dark with ink and detail
slowly fading above and below into what was uninteresting,
rhythms of movement and skin
overbrimming the brain of this Dante of stone.
Or just an unfinished Christ from late in life,
Mary on some pedestal trying to pull her limp son straight,
their faces still lacerated by the chisel
but gone over and over with love
in some approximation of old Buonarroti’s own age,
broken body of ailments and groans
that still went tearing at this Pieta until the end,
an act of devotion in his lonely exhaustion,
the prayer of the undone more profound
than the most polished skin and bone.
It was a stonecutter’s wife who nursed him, not his mother,
giving him the hammer and chisel along with her breast
and the love for the quarries far from Florence and Rome,
months of youth wresting marble from the mountains
only to dig a new body free in a blizzard of chips and dust,
ninety years of unavoidable labor in stone,
perhaps with a few friends but never at ease,
perhaps with a gang of help, but ever the One.
I should mention here that this poem has a special meaning for me. After starting to write poetry again in 2013, for a long time I was set on writing poems in some form of my own making – whether in merely counting the syllables in each line, or in using my approximation of iambic pentameter. And I can still remember sitting on the porch one summer, trying to fit this poem about Michelangelo into any of those formal structures, but in the end, it became the first truly “free verse” poem I had written after my 2013 restart. Allowing the line “its maker showing our true form, unfinished and flowing and perpetually Protean” to go on for so long was quite a revelation, and reading the entire poem now, I just want to add commas and pauses to breathe everywhere, but I can’t mess with the energy I found back then.