Atlas, Bound, Victor Marrero’s striking first collection of poems, takes its inspiration from Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures known as the “Four Prisoners,” or “Four Slaves,” housed at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. Begun by the artist as embellishments for a pope’s tomb, the statues appear to be both carrying—and struggling to emerge from—the partially chiseled marble that contains and obscures them. The book’s opening poem, “Variations on a Straight Line,” reveals they are:
…murky figures locked inside the solid rock,
there deformed within the uncut block all along, yet unseen
like the dark side of the moon…
As the prisoners come into view, a speaker personifies the sculptures by describing them as follows:
Contours of frozen surprise
trace terrified faces.
Torsos in corkscrew twists
that wring body sweats dry.
Pectoral mounds and dents
flexed and torqued to no avail.
At the heart of Atlas, Bound is the visual and symbolic juxtaposition of the prisoners with Michelangelo’s finely detailed, towering David, which stands nearby. Not yet the biblical ruler he would become, David is poised in the moment right before he kills Goliath, an act that would help make him king. Exuding confidence and youthful perfection, “finished if unabashed by self-love,” David provides a sharp contrast to the four prisoners, who are “incomplete,/repressed by dominion, sidelined by neglect.” Trapped in their heavy mantles of rock, devoid of names, identities and histories, the prisoners remain in David’s metaphorical shadow, a complex commentary on the nature of power and human capability—both the inner drive to succeed, as well what humans are capable of doing to each other.
It seems fitting that Marrero, with his long, distinguished record of public service, would choose to meditate on works emblematic of power and injustice, visibility and invisibility—or “the ache of being merely half-being,” as the speaker of “The Riddle Thrice” tells us. But these poems do more than meditate. They investigate different viewpoints and imagined experiences, from the sculptures themselves to the artist who created them; from contemporary museum-goers, scholars and guides to other more marginalized lives—a “mute” museum sweeper with her daily yet mostly unnoticed “brushwork,” an incarcerated man “snuggled in fetal curl,/sleeping away fear and the reprise of nightmares.” Atlas, Bound shows us “mutilation mingled with perfection/The finished and unfinished,/washed and unwashed alike./The real world imperfectly withstood./All claw for due attention and belonging.”
These are generous poems, elevating and lighting “imperfect” works and lives, much as the Galleria dell’Accademia’s skylight spotlights the fully finished and perfect David. As the speaker of “Labored Aberrations” observes,
…distortions far out of line
are not far out of mind,
as shadows cannot be swept under the rug,
as stardust brushed arcing across the sky
cannot whitewash the dark.
Stylistically, many of the poems are reminiscent of Renaissance sculptures, with their long, meticulous lines, layered stanzas, muscular syntax and deft enjambement that keeps our eyes and minds moving forward. They are rich with sound—syllables jostling and eliding with each other, the echoes of slant rhymes. Many focus on artworks, yet feel very personal, too, as in the elegiac “Lives Not Lived”:
Day after day, as if haunted by a loss,
I relive my lives not lived. Like an amputee
reaching out with limbs sensed but never there,
I clutched lost worlds that passed me by,
worlds that orbited suns without me.
In “Idle Ruins,” the speaker reflects on aging and the passage of time:
At sunrise, at sunset, clouds top-heavy with twilight
cradle autumn rains. Darkening skies
loosen the falls grip on our own sun-dried years.
Treading in place, we dream of a break,
teased by a passing moment to move again
into the fast lane.
The collection probes various other forms of human bondage and servitude—to our art, to our faith, to our careers, to our fears—with lyrical perspicacity and alert self-awareness. Ultimately, as the speaker explains in “The Art of the Possible,” we are “captives all. We know we are caught,/dying to get out even as we squirm in denial./Translucent husks and shells we don tell all.” As if to say: we humans will remain within our own hard “shells,” unless we choose to examine our collectively flawed humanity.
Movingly, the book’s final poem, “Hard Rock,” is structurally different from much of what precedes it. Arranged in indented lines, as if the lines themselves have been broken and rearranged, or as if they are pushing against white space that seeks to constrain them, it sounds like a clear note of hope, telling us that:
The time has come
to break out unbroken
relates my unveiling
I issue whole
from the strongholds
of profane obscurity
fortified to breach these ancient walls.
Unlike sculptures, humans have the potential to escape their bonds—those forced upon us and those of our own making. We are “destined to break the seal/of cold hard rock.” Taken as a whole, the collection delivers a prescient message: pay attention, feel, think…before it’s too late.
Ekphrastic, deeply intelligent and always compassionate, Atlas, Bound is a wake-up call for our age.
Jennifer O’Grady is a poet and playwright. She is the author of the poetry books Exclusions & Limitations (Plume Editions/MadHat Press) and White (Mid-List Press First Series Award for Poetry). Her plays are published in The Best Ten-Minute Plays 2023, Best Women’s Stage Monologues 2022 and other anthologies.
Buy Atlas, Bound here.