Asian Art Museum in San Francisco
A couple of months ago, on my Quotidian blog, I posted Sam's favorite paintings from the Guggenheim, along with a throwback reference to one of our favorite childhood movies Don't Eat the Pictures. I turned again to this Sesame Street favorite, about an overnight visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on my previous Fortnighlty blog, "Light as a Feather." One of the subplots for Big Bird concerns finding an answer to the all - important question: "Where does today meet yesterday?"
Can you guess the answer? "In a museum!"
Last summer (August 2015), Gerry and I visited several museums in Lincoln, England. We were lucky enough to be there for the octocentenary of the Magna Carta (1215 - 2015). Of all the awe - inspiring documents and artifacts that we surveyed as part of this town - wide octocentennial celebration of today meeting yesterday, what made the most lasting impression on me was an ancient jar of ancient pennies on display in The Collection Museum.
I couldn't help thinking of the ancient family (probably Roman) and all of the household items they might have valued, even treasured: an ornamental vase or wall hanging? a headdress or some jewelry? the best tableware or even the second - best. Of all these items, could they have ever guessed that what would survive would be the unused pennies, the most humble currency? Of all their arts and crafts and labor, is this what they would have chosen for us to remember them by, 800 years hence?
Certainly of all the things in my home that I consider beautiful or useful (see previous post), it is not the souvenir jar of nearly worthless pennies that I would send as emissary to the future. Yet, as it turns out, that's where yesterday met today, and where today might meet tomorrow.
The riddle of Don't Eat the Pictures -- "Where does today meet yesterday?" -- can also be found in the following two poems. Underlying their sophistication and elegance is the same conundrum. In "Museum," Wislawa Szymborska observes that "Since eternity was out of stock, / ten thousand aging things have been amassed instead": plates, weddings rings, fans, swords, lutes, hairpins, crowns, gloves, shoes, dresses. Ten thousand artifacts! Some quite impressive, others merely as silly as a jar of pennies. Her closing image of the determined dress is particularly timely and of interest, since I've recently learned that clothing in any way unusual -- not only vintage styles, but also novelty fashions and passing fads -- may be donated to the Purdue Theatre Department. Such garments might be used onstage or studied in the classroom -- where today meets yesterday.
The second poem, "In the Museum of Lost Objects," is Lindenberg's tribute to "the magnitude / of absence," all the long - lost relics, jewels, and documents that we shall never lay eyes upon. For every thing that we can see, there is so much more that we never can. For every heirloom or rustic jug retained, how many more disappeared in the landslide? How many were crushed in the landfill and have now disintegrated beyond all existence? As with cemeteries, for each loved one commemorated, there are millions more whose bones and names we shall never know. The Terracotta Ghost Army remains 8000 strong, but where are the citizens of the realm? "Gone to feed the roses" -- that's where. Their lives too would fill huge vacant fields, huge vacant rooms -- but we have "ten thousand aging things . . . instead."
Frye Museum of Art, Seattle
Here are plates with no appetite.
And wedding rings, but the requited love
has been gone now for some three hundred years.
Here’s a fan -- where is the maiden’s blush?
Here are swords -- where is the ire?
Nor will the lute sound at the twilight hour.
Since eternity was out of stock,
ten thousand aging things have been amassed instead.
The moss-grown guard in golden slumber
props his mustache on Exhibit Number --
Eight. Metals, clay and feathers celebrate
their silent triumphs over dates.
Only some Egyptian flapper’s silly hairpin giggles.
The crown has outlasted the head.
The hand has lost out to the glove.
The right shoe has defeated the foot.
As for me, I am still alive, you see.
The battle with my dress still rages on.
It struggles, foolish thing, so stubbornly!
Determined to keep living when I’m gone!
In the Museum of Lost Objects
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee;
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.
You’ll find labels describing what is gone:
an empress’s bones, a stolen painting
of a man in a feathered helmet
holding a flag-draped spear.
A vellum gospel, hidden somewhere long ago
forgotten, would have sat on that pedestal;
this glass cabinet could have kept the first
salts carried back from the Levant.
To help us comprehend the magnitude
of absence, huge rooms
lie empty of their wonders—the Colossus,
Babylon’s Hanging Gardens and
in this gallery, empty shelves enough to hold
all the scrolls of Alexandria.
My love, I’ve petitioned the curator
who has acquired an empty chest
representing all the poems you will
now never write. It will be kept with others
in the poet’s gallery. Next door,
a vacant room echoes with the spill
of jewels buried by a pirate who died
before disclosing their whereabouts.
I hope you don’t mind, but I have kept
a few of your pieces
for my private collection. I think
you know the ones I mean.
Into the museums they go, so that today may encounter yesterday: bones and paintings, helmets and spears, classic books and curios, wonders of the world, unfinished manuscripts. Sensing how elusive eternity can be, we save what we can. As T.S. Eliot (and later Joan Didion) once said: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins."
SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, June 28th
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