Unpacking the Michelangelo

On its wheels, the crate is a good
three or four inches off the ground
– useful for the half-hour it stood
in a tarmac puddle at JFK
waiting for papers to be found –
an oblong case made of new wood
still splintery around the sides,
stickered and barcoded the way
anything might be; now it glides
with the gentlest push along the floor
of the storeroom up to a table
we’ve cleared for it, a surface where
cutters and pliers and wire cable
have good room to accumulate:
it takes two of us to lift it
and lay the case completely flat.

Screwdrivers first: an ordinary
counter-clockwise turn of the wrist
is enough to loosen every
one of the dozen threaded pins
that held an outside panel fast,
which then will simply lift away
to lean lightly against a wall
while the peeling open begins,
and layers of thick coating fall
down to the ground; stiff fasteners
come out, and plastic brackets snap,
shock-swallowing foam finally stirs
and bounces from the bubble-wrap
covering an exhibition frame
beneath whose glass the very same
drawing is back now whence it came.

I hold it up into the light,
and black chalk from five centuries
ago is still fresh as first sight
while I bring it close up, a page
with tiny writing no one sees
and only I now can set right.
Thousands have looked this closely though,
and nothing here that I can gauge
will count for much, as these things go;
it weighs so little, and yet all
it’s been worth, and it will be worth,
is past counting, elemental
like tons of gold deep in the earth:
but in my two hands, at least here
and now, it’s both obscure and clear,
charged and intangible as fear.

Peter McDonald

Peter McDonald

Peter McDonald's translation of The Homeric Hymns (2016) was shortlisted for the London Hellenic Prize.  His Collected Poems (2012) and Herne the Hunter (2016) are published in the UK by Carcanet Press.  A new collection of poetry, The Gifts of Fortune, will appear in 2020.  He is Professor of British and Irish Poetry, Christ Church, University of Oxford.
Peter McDonald

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Author: Peter McDonald

Peter McDonald's translation of The Homeric Hymns (2016) was shortlisted for the London Hellenic Prize.  His Collected Poems (2012) and Herne the Hunter (2016) are published in the UK by Carcanet Press.  A new collection of poetry, The Gifts of Fortune, will appear in 2020.  He is Professor of British and Irish Poetry, Christ Church, University of Oxford.