.

Moments in Marble

from Michelangelo’s sculptures; above from left
are depicted Dusk, Dawn, Night, and Day

Day hustles up, impelled to humanize
His world of work by wary energy,
To make hours grow, outstripping blowzy noon,
With muscles rippling out of royal rest
Unneeded, once it ripens reasoned thought,
The rich domain of daily enterprise.

Impending potent Dusk can civilize
His realm in time’s judicious sovereignty;
Experience and expertise attune
Well-earned success to pleasure self-possessed,
Extending gains achieved by battles fought
With fresh exertions forging friendships wise.

Unconscious Night inclines to tranquilize
Emotion’s aspirations, setting free
A temper unrestrained to slip and swoon
Into her brooding psyche shadow-tressed,
Where unsuspected mysteries inwrought
Anticipate dreams’ charming compromise.

Dawn tempts the light foreseen to iridize
Awakened earth into activity,
And polish what past artistry has hewn,
Through prime imagination, to be dressed
In concepts coming moments will have caught
As sweet and bitter vistas meet her eyes.

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Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others. 


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22 Responses

  1. John Detwiler

    That’s good. I appreciate the glory given to the four different aspects of man’s life, highlighting the good of each part. More still, the very last line shows that the poet is not ignorant of the dark parts of world. (Dark like sin and death, obviously, not like the God-created night.)

    I think that touch of bitterness transforms the poem from an interesting and charming exercise with an unusual rhyme scheme into a serious fount of meditation. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, John, for a perceptive analysis of the poem. I am glad you see the focus on promising potential in each portion of a life. I did mean the last line to be a rational outlook on the mixed possibilities each day can bring. You are right that day and night as God gives them are not flawed, but human failings can obstruct our efforts and test our resolve.

      Reply
  2. Mike Bryant

    Margaret, I’m sure that Michelangelo would appreciate your beautiful and thought-provoking tribute. I didn’t know about this work, but I’m glad you’ve highlighted it so fittingly. You have done it, and the sculptor, every justice.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Mike! As I was composing the poem, I found that the statue of Night already has a literary history. Giovanni Strozzi, a contemporary of Michelangelo, wrote a quatrain on it, and Michelangelo made a reply in verse. Much later, Baudelaire made Night the ultimate beauty in his sonnet, “L’Ideal.” But I don’t know of poems, other than mine, about all four sculptures. The Wikipedia article “Medici Chapel” has the other poems, as well as more views of all the sculpture.

      Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    This is a tour de force of sustained rhyme. Also, each six-line stanza is a complete sentence (with a compound sentence in the second stanza). That requires one helluva command of syntactical dexterity!

    My two favorite words here: “Inwrought” and “iridize.”

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      One sentence-stanza per individual piece of sculpture seemed the right way to pay tribute to these works. The rhyme, sustained throughout the poem, brings them together as a group. I did think three times about using the rare word “iridize.” But speaking of dawn offers an opportunity to use it in its useful, natural meaning of causing all colors to appear. Thank you for your appreciation!

      Reply
  4. James A. Tweedie

    Margaret,

    I consider these works to be among the master’s finest and more than worthy of your poetic attention. I can affirm that they are even more impressive when seen up close and personal–as it true for all so-called “great art.” I suppose each of us might read a different psychological profile into each of the four divisions of the 24-hour day (or metaphorically, the span of our life–they are, after all, funeral decoration). But you have presented your own interpretation in both an artful and cogent manner. Well done! Out of curiosity, I would query the use of the word “it” in the first stanza where both the statue–and earlier in that same stanza–“Day” has been personified as “he.” (“Day” being my favorite statue of the four.)

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      I am so glad you have been able to see these sculptures, James. The poem is a wishful-thinking tribute on my part. I would encourage anyone who’s interested to look at many online photos. These are masterpieces from all angles–and each angle opens up new ideas. My poem departs somewhat from Michelangelo, to whom these were pairs of statues for different Medici tombs. As you have noticed, I make them four parts of the day or of a life.

      In the first stanza, “it” refers back to “rest.” Rest is unneeded after sleep “ripens reasoned thought.” And reasoned thought is the “domain of daily enterprise,” while unreasoning dreams belong to night. I savor the dreams, but if I get enough good sleep, I happily find that my reasoning faculties are refreshed!

      Reply
  5. Cynthia Erlandson

    Such a creative rhyme scheme! And I love your personifications of each part of the day’s cycle.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Cynthia! The personality details come from looking at the faces and postures of the sculptures, but I didn’t want the poem to be dependent on seeing pictures of them. Thus I include symbolism of parts of the day as parts of a human life–and I am very pleased that the combination comes across as four vivid individuals.

      Reply
  6. Brian Yapko

    Margaret, what a wonderful poem! It is, in some ways, four separate ekphrastic poems – one for each sculpture, but inextricably intertwined into a unity. I love the intricacy of your language and the contrasts you give to each division of the day. But even more, I love the well planned structuring of your piece. First, as in Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel, you present two sets of sculptures. However, Michelangelo linked them as Day & Night and, separately, Dusk & Dawn. You, however, have recast the piece into Day, Dusk, Night and Dawn in order to lead the reader through an entire day. With that decision you’ve committed to presenting four movements in one piece, much like the movements in a symphony. (I’m especially reminded of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, although each of his seasons was in three parts. The cleverness of your chosen form is then vastly magnified by your rhyme scheme: a-b-c-d-e-a – with the same repeating rhymes in each stanza. This connects each stanza to the next in a deep way, yet the return to “a” at the end of each individual stanza creates a certain circularity – it takes us through something like a clock-cycle – from midnight to midnight as it were. I’m certain there’s more here to unpack but (ironically) time is calling me. Let me just say that Michelangelo’s work is a great favorite of mine and this is quite stunning work, Margaret!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you for everything you’ve said, Brian, and I hope time will call you back! You’ve approached the greater theme of Michelangelo’s work, as well as how the form of my poem considers it. I have a function word for what each of the sculptures does, beginning with “humanize” as what Day does to the inexorable flow of time with human work. Surely we see Michelangelo wanting to humanize time with these works of art, as he helps the Medici mourn the loss of family members whose time is at an end. As you remark, my poem cycles through time in 24 lines, the number of lines being the number of hours in a day. I had first chosen the muted rhyme scheme of abcdef, but found that I could make each stanza announce each quarter of the day more audibly by opening and closing with the same sound. Still, you will notice that the final “a” in each abcdea stanza is a noun or adjective, settling out the “a” verb at the beginning. I hope this provides an aural tension or space, comparable to the spatial tension the sculptures in the Medici Chapel have, with the two tombs across from one another. A visitor can see all four if he stands to the back or front of them, but can frontally face only two, and closely contemplate only one at a time.

      Reply
  7. Jeff Eardley

    Margaret, your wonderful poem has sent me back to our week spent in Florence in 2002 when we first saw these sculptures. Thank you for increasing my vocabulary with “inwrought” and “iridize.” I am no expert but I think that this is a very special piece indeed. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Jeff, I’m very happy that the poem can call up a 20-year-old memory of these superlative sculptural masterpieces and add something special to it. Thank you!

      Reply
  8. C.B. Anderson

    Wow! You’ve taken care of everything. This is the kind of very detailed and finely wrought poetry I really like to read. If Richard Wilbur were alive, he might have wished he had written it.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you for this great compliment on my sculpting! I like Wilbur’s “Praise in Summer” and “In the Smoking Car,” among others.

      Reply
  9. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, what fine example of accomplished poetry chock full of alliteration and allure. I particularly like: “outstripping blowzy noon, / With muscles rippling out of royal rest/ Unneeded, once it ripens reasoned thought… ” – a masterclass in literary splendor. Thank you for your constant inspiration!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Susan. We belong to the same school; I remember your “phlox and foxglove scene”! The Michelangelo statues appeal to different viewers in different ways, and I like the Dusk and Dawn pair better because they seem more relaxed. I had to re-write the Day stanza you quote because it was a lackluster workaday beginning. Therefore I’m pleased to hear that the new wording is a favorite to such a connoisseur as yourself!

      Reply
  10. James Sale

    A poem of massive artistry – perhaps, as Joe himself notes, its most accomplished aspect being syntactical. This is the most underrated and under-observed aspect of all great writing. As Winifred Nowottny noted: ‘…syntax is important to poet and critic because it produces strong effects by stealth; these remain ‘inexplicable’ so long as the power of syntax goes undetected.’ Exactly – but we have them here manifest. So well done – this is fabulous poetry – and let’s not forget the ingenious rhyming too. Great stuff.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, James. I learned syntactic skills through long experience in close analytical reading of poetry. Even before I started writing much original poetry, I could always write an expository essay faster if the topic allowed for close analysis of grammar, vocabulary, imagery, and logic. When teaching poetry, close reading takes a great deal of time, but knowledge of this skill is essential for readers to fully appreciate the art. I’m glad to have your close reading approve my art!

      Reply
      • James Sale

        Margaret – I certainly do approve! It is through syntax more than any other feature that the most subtle distinctions and utterances are embedded, albeit sometimes almost invisibly. The great master to whom we can all aspire in this is, of course, Milton – check out his syntax! But the trouble is, if we write in blank verse, we come under his Charybdian pull!!! I digress – that’s a topic for an essay – your poem is wonderful; thank you.

      • Margaret Coats

        Never thought of studying Milton in order to imitate his syntax–but your Charybdis comment is intriguing! Have you found imitators (18th century, 19th century) who sank in the whirlpool? Or some great writer who learned Miltonic blank verse but made his way out?

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