Like the Unfinished Souls in da Vinci’s Adoration

[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]

Many of Michael’s poems are obviously autobiographical, if not about actual events or people then about real places in his life. That has let me use them to riff on elements of his biography and character.

The twelfth poem in Cape Cod LightLike the Unfinished Souls in da Vinci’s Adoration, is not one of those poems. It is more modern than his other poems, with a shifting, dream-like quality. The full title of the da Vinci work it references is Adoration of the Magi, an unfinished painting in the Uffizi.

The paining uses true perspective, with a vanishing point on the horizon, and combines many scenes in a single work, including a battle in the background. It is extraordinary in its presaging of many elements of modern art, including the Escher-esque staircases in the background and the unnatural coloring (blue trees!).

I presume Michael saw Adoration on one of his visits to Italy. The poem seems to be a walk through the painting: wandering the “back alleys,” witnessing the luminescent veneer lain down, visiting the “hunched pedestrians” and “cornices.” This journey has metaphorical significance: you are guided, your course “charted like the future we reject”; “strategy is required,”, until finally nightfall surprises you.  Perhaps it is you, the reader, that are like da Vinci’s unfinished souls, trying to discern meaning and plan your future amid beauty, complexity, and fate.

Michael at the Colosseum in Rome

[Note: I made one alteration to the poem: The word alleys in the first stanza rendered allies in the book, which I think must be a typographical error. “Back allies” does not make sense in context, and although I suppose he could be using the very rare variant of the plural of alley intentionally, that’s not really his style, and he uses the conventional spelling in the second stanza.]

Like the Unfinished Souls in da Vinci’s Adoration

The reverie guided you
Across the fields, into the back alleys, and among
The first low houses, violating that clean line
Between a village and its apron of countryside,
Curious that no resistance must be crushed,
Refreshed by the receding infinity of precisions.

Alleys unfold into avenues, and that
Has been charted like the future we reject,
But lingering here allows
A yielding gesture in the face of confusion
Any simple idea could clarify.

Dust lifts and settles on the pavement.
Here and there a shade is drawn over the light.
A streetlamp flickers, then the whole block
Is illuminated. This is no revelation,
The veneer spread luminescently over everything,
No plan of action that could make life easier, hence
The one state in which you could turn to it,
Become salt, shifting, indistinguishable from sand.

Some strategy is required, some evaluation
In a calculus to be learned from the following course.
No ceremonial motions can be exacted, no
Public denunciations of the self, rare
Collection of external phenomena, as various
As cornices or hunched pedestrians. There it is
Again, nightfall has surprised you.

The next poem is here.

1 thought on “Like the Unfinished Souls in da Vinci’s Adoration

  1. Richard Bernstein

    My favorite Hattersley poem. I remember working with him on it at Muhlenberg in 1979. This is not exactly the way I remember it. I believe it was first published in Northwest Review. He was, and always will be, my mentor as both poet and teacher.

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