At the Art Institute

Once when I was in Chicago
up on the second floor
of the Art Institute, looking
at all the Impressionists
and post-Impressionists
and Fauves and Cubists,
there was this man pushing
his mother in a wheel-chair.

Now and then under his breath
he called her “Mother.”
He pushed her right up
to every painting in the room,
and read from the placard
as though announcing
departures and arrivals
in some busy air terminal –
the title of this particular work,
the years during which
the artist lived, the painting’s
place in the history of art,
and so on.
                   Slowly, patiently,
from one painting to the next,
he guided the ancient machine,
placing her squarely in front
of each canvas, then beginning
to read aloud in a nasal whine.
Other visitors in the room
stared and shook their heads.

Within those huge frames
the world of La Belle Époque
blazed with sudden color
and patches of dappled light,
while the names themselves
came back like a lost litany –
Renoir and Manet, Pissaro,
Sisley, Monet, and Degas –
all mispronounced, all
strangely transformed
by his harsh calling out.

The woman in the wheel-chair
ignored the other patrons.
Her eyes were hooded, her body
gnarled and shrunken –
                                          she gripped
the tubular metal arm-rests
and peered up at the paintings
while her son recited the names
and reeled off the explanations.

So on they labored, backwards
through the nineteenth century,
finally entering the dread precincts
of the salon painters, the creators
of les grandes machines, of early
Puvis de Chavannes and late
Bougereau – vast historical
and mythological compositions
that filled entire walls – the light
in those frames becoming more dim
and muddy with each step he took,
each turn of the creaking wheels
on the contraption in which
he pushed her along –
                                        he continuing
to bark out the words, but neither
of them really seeing the paintings
any longer, both of them caught up
in something they insisted on
accomplishing, some witnessing
that overwhelmed them now,
some courage or indomitability
or reprise of moment long ago –

and in this manner they passed
from view, down the hallways
and through the long corridors
until I could hear them no more.

© 2005 Jared Carter