At the "World of Whales" exhibit
in the Natural History Museum
Beyond where the jawbone of that sperm whale
Is mounted like wreckage from a hull,
We studied scrimshaw, the stiffened bristles
Of baleen, while around us whistles
And submarine clicks from the exhibit
Echoed through the rooms—each pitched robotic
Mounted on its seas:
humpback and orca,
A right whale's head, the mother porpoise
Nursing her young.
My own sons stood wide-eyed
In those fathoms which the great whales plied,
Wondering how they managed down there
Alone in the dark,
and were they ever scared,
And what has it felt like, all these years,
To suffer the wounding of the waters?
The crowds surged about them, heavy and gray,
Churning in channels beside the displays.
Bodies in a bas-relief, as though
Laminated in limestone, the dragonflies
Slant on their familiar stalks—
Little sticks of incense, wings paired
And rounded as maple seeds.
I return again to their stillness,
To shelved bodies held in gestures
Fragile and momentary as light,
The ribbed fall of shadows on a wall.
In the silence of the museums I marvel
At what takes shape in darkness
Left undisturbed in the drift of stone,
The pale slabs clean as plaster
Where the dust has been kept whole,
Pressed in the rifts of their plates.
I come back to the ridged anatomies,
Embossments of chalk, the slow
Mineral flowering of time into bone.
The Hall of Architecture
Touring the Attic past, we stopped before
Plinths and entablatures, caryatids
Topped with their vast crowns, a pair of cupids
Bearing small stone wings: all of it hoarded
In the hall whose remnants we ranged among,
Dwarfed by portals and urns, the castings
Of the great doors of a baptistry
Where every panel disgorged its throng.
Even the radiators seemed monumental.
You found such maleness smothering, marble
And bronze being brunted by the will.
I remembered the mills when molten steel
Poured into molds, slag rose like coral reefs,
The scale of that labor now hard to conceive.
But then this was my house of wonders
While growing up—the horse of the sun
Surging from its stone, the horse of the moon
Setting—the great room's freight and plunder
As natural to me as the cliff wall
Rising along West Run Road, dates and names
Scrawled upon the rocks. It was all the same:
The lettered bluff, the museum's sheer vaults
Carded from their quarry. This was Pittsburgh,
After all. I rode home on welded tracks,
Past open hearths and dark, purling rivers,
Buildings constructed out of granite blocks.
For me the past was an escarpment—
Something silent and shelfed and permanent.