He carved what he carved and left them, just as they are. And so
they stayed from that moment on. Untouched. Undone. Four figures
on display model, a mold cast aside. Their striking postures style
mastery unbounded by matter or mind, immured to imperfection.
The coarse-grain stones languished in the rough, imprisoned
in solid vaults quarried from their native rock while the master
lived and worked on other blocks. Incomplete,
repressed by dominion, sidelined by neglect, they bore witness.
They watched the consummation of his act,
looked upon the jigsaw of his genius, sensed his pride,
beheld his wrath and ecstasy. And though hardened as limitations
in the filiations of his art, they leveled ground as they served.
Why, while Michelangelo conceived and delivered the other marbles
full and primed in anguish to perfection, did the ill-timed captives,
already cast and branded, remain sequestered, still unformed?
Does the failing of missing parts revamp as styled unfinished art?
No redemption remains in order for this lonely crowd.
No reconstruction now. The artist is gone. The original lost.
Fulsome reproductions are not worth the cost.
From this point, recollection is not an option.
Their movement blocked, castaways have nowhere to go.
No retreat to the beginning clears a straight path ahead
to undo the tough realities the odds deal them day by day.
Whatever else the sculptor had in mind
never had a chance to realize from his eccentric commission.
Hammer blows meant to proclaim another prize
stalled in thin air, strokes omitted that would raise genius
to its pinnacle. The toll now fills the silence around
the muted fragments of his work that even in his mind,
for good or ill, remained terminally interrupted.
The exposition leaves the looming point unsaid,
what figures damaged in this rendering record.
A titan’s might doomed to stillness
proclaims a loss. Voices of his lost progeny
now rise in epic throes, dying to know
why such grand pageantry of patrimony
and power failed a master’s promise here.
What the artist saw in reality he could not,
or would not see. What he did behold bared rank disorder,
a disarray out of all proportion to its real inspiration.
To reconcile, he improvised. He cast a contrarian eye
for original style and fixed his sight on a novel configuration.
Upside down. He turned world polarity on its head.
The order inverted, by rejecting, he accepted. By a loss, he gained.
By drawing from the sores and scars of his own ills
and disfigurations, he labored impoverishment and pain to perfection,
stretching the meaning of anger, straining agony’s pliant boundary
to the edge where heart pulse collapses into chaos.
And this self-portrait emerged. On its face,
a tense match of thrill and rage captures his haunting
and grueling and cutting way of saying poignant things.
*The Four Captives (or Slaves) are among Michelangelo’s lesser known, but perhaps most mysterious sculptures. Generally dated to the 1530s, the four marbles were not finished, and thus became a centuries-long source of considerable scholarly study and artistic debate about the inner meaning that the ambiguities surrounding their incompletion embody.