Prof. Wayne Koestenbaum
Experiments in Art Writing
Moved to Stillness.
He sat there with his heavy skull, shadowed in thought and light,
I sat where, with my footsteps dulled, I rose in motionless flight.
A hot July, a sweat-soaked time– ancients sublimating in the south of France–
Sticky, but alive, I saw him climb, as I sat beneath his dark expanse.
It was Italy in 2003.
Where a painting got the better of me.
I was studying Italian, theater and language, in a basement in a dusty town.
Forli was provincially picturesque, complete with local, lackadaisical frown.
At the Salesian Institute we lived with priests, who were wary of female residents.
We were only four of only seven total, but we brooked their gendered precedents.
Megan and I were bound to be friends in the crucible of early language learning
Sweat blurred our boundaries, humor bonded our souls, while our words were listlessly turning.
Climate and effort wrung out perspiration, we secreted Harry Potter in English by night,
Inside out, our skin and our minds were made permeable in the hazy Emilia-Romanian light.
After all the bugie — our summer abroad had come at last to a close
We never got the bicycles they had promised, for the frate oversaw those.
After weeks of Goldoni, Pirandello and Fo, I’d been ready to beat a retreat.
From Italian stares and subjunctive verbs, Regensburg gave anonymity sweet.
Yet I had to come back, in order to go from Milan (where my wallet was stolen)
I had uncertain plans and a ponderous duffle– wheelless and souvenir-swollen
All of Italy was mine, what I could get to by train, and the opportunities felt endless
But after all the days we were trapped all together, I found myself suddenly friendless.
The freedom I’d wanted felt suddenly bare, without the shared comfort of woe.
So when Megan mentioned she was passing nearby, I readily agreed to go.
Our fast-formed friendship had been something rare, built in that airless class.
Seemed to me fancy free — as quick as it was, I felt it might as soon pass.
There were so many cities and museums on my “had-to-see” list,
But I knew with certainty I’d be back — the unseasoned, travel optimist.
I went, then, along for the sake of a joke from a much beloved Cole Porter lyric,
Not a serious thing, or a life-long dream, nor response to a classic panegyric.
Our destination boasted no natural charms — Cinque Terre was relegated to a visit vicarious–
But they had Megan’s painter and a craftsman of note– one Antonio Stradivarius.
The violin museum was astonishingly clean, pristine instruments housed in glass boxes of light,
But in the civic art museum with dimly lit halls, I found my static delight.
For sure art before and since has mattered, in my aesthetic autobiography
But there slightly dirty, with consciousness scattered, I mapped for myself a novel geography.
Light and dark seemed to blend despite deliberate distinction
and I newly perceived ways to contend with extinction.
I like rhymes, the rhythm and meter that beat anticipation
The times the prism of language reflects cognitive syncopation
When a painting hits the simple chord of vertical horizontality
When the notion fits, a stranger’s limp afford a practical sense of mortality.
The ache in your heart is holy, a yoga once teacher said.
Wholly holey holy, echoed smugly the chuckling voice in my head.
What are these depths that quake with quiet?
What sort of death makes us wonder why it
could possibly be anything other than that and
why it might be simpler out of Manhattan?
What world would have us and where would we go?
Into a painting, transfixed below.
Myles describes walking with a poet short on toes,
“the stop was part of his way of moving on,” she goes,
and so too from Caravaggio, secular religious prose,
the stillness stirred in my seated pose.
In my memory the light was yellowed with fuzz
the stuffy air hummed with an inaudible buzz
Yet while Megan found Sofonisba, I found a moment informal,
in grimed travel clothes, feeling nothing less than normal.
How then did the feeling warmly wade to my bone
and the light hang so heavy, so cozily alone?
Lots of bars in Cremona.