IT BROKE FROM WITHIN
after Ai Weiwei’s “Marble Chair”
Say a famous artist made a life-sized yoke-back chair out of the finest Italian marble, with a russet stain that spreads from spindle to seat like a greedy flame.
Imagine the famous artist’s father was a poet whose whispered last words were: “Imagine, a white marble chair…”
Say the famous artist came from a country of tyrants, & as a child his family was forced into exile & of all their possessions, they were allowed to keep only a yoke-back chair, much like the marble chair. How, then, would you regard the marble chair?
Say the artist never touched the chair, just imagined it, and handed off its production to paid-by-the-hour artisans. Would you call it his?
Imagine not one marble chair, but a cavernous hall full of them, lined up in symmetrical rows, hundreds of them there with an oddly expectant air…
Say one of the marble chairs was purchased by a museum in the American Midwest, in a city famous for its museums, where the room in which it was exhibited was never visited, never seen. Would the marble chair then be an inferior work of art—or would it belong to a superior class, of a category not yet named or conceived?
Say the dust from the cutting, carving and the sanding of the marble calcified the lungs of the artisans & made their bodies cold as stones in winter. How, then, would you regard the marble chair?
Say you found out that the dictator ritualistically ordered the death of dissidents and artists, bound & gagged in the chair before an audience of other artists & dissidents, making their death a grotesque spectacle of blood running down the white marble chair. How, then, would you regard the chair?
Say, alternately, that the dictator so hated the marble chair that he forced the imprisoned artist to witness its destruction blow by blow until there was nothing but polished shards. Would he have destroyed the marble chair?
Imagine an American poet preoccupied by the chair. He writes a prose poem about it; each stanza begins anaphorically with the proposition “Say…” One day a memory comes to him from childhood. He realizes that the marble chair is melded in his mind with Mass, with the large, imposing altar chair the priest would sit in. When the priest stood to bless the Host, the tortured body of the Son hung on a crucifix above the throne-like chair, and although he now knows His body was not carved, was factory made, he remembers three tear-shaped, scarlet-red drops of blood on his beige, spiked feet. Since his belief in that god is no more than a half moon, what strikes him most about the marble chair now is its emptiness, the summoning of an authority that isn’t there. O the melancholia of the marble chair!
Say there was nothing like fame for artists, nothing like museums, no artisans involved, no art-threatened tyrant, just a marble chair. What should the tongue say? How, in that world, would poetry fare?
HISTORY. DESIRE. TRAGEDY. REPEAT
The landscape repeats itself as flat
& featureless until you reach the foothills
& it’s after history with the long perspective
of afternoon light traveling along
a winter’s day, cut only by
a flat black strip of highway, without snow.
Then there’s the story of the crushing weight
of failure day after day, unavoidable
as the mountains, which are
terrible in their beauty (in the distance
you cannot say if the snowy peaks
are rose & salmon-tinted,
or if it’s the sun diffused through
the syntax of clouds). In the
wind noise, you hear rumors
of more wars, negotiations, broken
truces, but with all the evidence of the past
cleared away, it’s hard to take them in,
in part because it’s the third cycle of
the third era of conquest & all the photographs
of men in uniforms
in strange lands are dog-eared
& oddly familiar & in the wind rush
you can still hear the keening
of women in black robes
alongside a highway that repeats itself
like a mantra of emptiness.
Copyright © Jon Thompson 2016
Jon Thompson's first collection was The Book of the Floating World (Parlor Press 2007). In 2014, his second collection appeared, Landscape with Light (Shearsman Books). His new collection, Strange Country, will be published by Shearsman Books in late 2016. His work previously appeared in Molly Bloom 2. More on him at www.jon-thompson.net