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The Elgin Marbles


When Elgin contemplates
            the marbles
now, though for half a century
            they have rested
under glass amid the soot
            streams and traffic

of London, he will see them,
            more often
than not, as underwater,
            distorted
by a lens that, though it wobbles
            and shifts,

betrays no sign of how the ship
            that bore them
foundered on a stretch of rocky
            coast, how the teak-
wood planks of the hull had snapped
            and splintered

and how the metopes and stelae
            slid
from their crates of packing
            straw, slipped
the pleats of waves, and hit the soft
            sand floor

of the Aegean with a thud.
            It is 1841,
the light from the stone-
            mullioned
windows of Broomhall House
            is amber,

mid-century, dying. Nothing
            remains
of the fortunes squandered on salvage,
            the rumors
of forgery that dogged the exhibition.
            Old now, near

death, Elgin remembers the blue salt water
            where the marbles
sank — thoughts that will shake him
            like a flame,
as some forty years earlier
            torchlight

guttered and fell upon the white,
            Pentelic
marble columns of the Narthex.
            In that faltering light,
Don Giovanni Battista Lusieri,
            under orders

from the Ambassador himself,
            surveys
the scaffolding, and noting
            with alarm
the lateness of the hour,
            summons

his draftsmen to the wind-
            lass cordage.
At his signal the sawed-up pieces
            of the outer
frieze are lowered, one
            by one,

down the ramp of the Acropolis.
            Dawn begins to stir
in Attica, just as one cumbersome
            chunk of marble
slips from the sling and shatters
            in a spray of chalk

and thunder. I was obliged,
            he wrote to Elgin,
to be a little barbarous. It is one more
            in a series
of ill portents: the owl that, gray-eyed,
            watched

the masons from her bulk of sticks
            in the pediment,
the tremors that have shaken
            and jerked
the city for a month, and now
            this. The faces

of the Janissary guards remain
            as cold
and inscrutable as ever, but from
            this moment,
the intervening years begin
            to bank

and roll like clouds; the sun-
            light
seeping through them rises
            on the slopes
of the Acropolis, on the bones
            of the Parthenon

that each day color from blue
            to ocher
to the blinding white of noon.
            What sculptures
remain in Athens weather to a low-
            relief.

And though the same sun
            that throws
its shadows down the length
            of the frieze
will hover at the treeline until
            nearly dawn,

it is night in Scotland, where Elgin,
            exiled to the remnants
of his own ancestral home, labors
            to breathe.
In the British Museum, once
            or twice

each night, like a ray of sunlight
            refracted
through water, the beam
            of the watch-
man's lamp will cross the marbles.
            By day it is

the faces of the population
            that shimmer
and fade from the glass. Some, more
            than others,
will linger before the musculature
            of the figures,

before their life-like arms and torsos,
            to catch the faintest
spittle of sea in the air, the scent
            of Greece
that is the scent of dry-rust and basil,
            or the bruised,

collective breath of its tombs
            that on a swirling
autumn day in 1817, in the middle
            of England, rose
from the muted stones to ruffle the auburn
            hair of Keats.


Davis McCombs
The Kenyon Review
New Series, Volume XXVIII Number 2
Spring 2006


Copyright © 2006 by The Kenyon Review
Authors hold the rights to their individual works.
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.

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