Sunday Afternoon at the Gardner Museum

 

Since today, March 18, is the 27th anniversary of the Gardner Museum heist, in which 13 works of art (including several by Degas, a Rembrandt, and a Vermeer) were stolen from the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum and never recovered–I thought it was fitting to republish my poem about the robbery. The thieves have never been found or brought to justice, and to date, the paintings have not been found.

Sunday Afternoon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner

Thieves in darkness smart enough to wear
cops’ uniforms, clever enough to talk
their way into the mansion
crammed with rich tapestries,
room after room of paintings, drawings
bowls, sculptures, carvings—
thieves experienced enough to tie up
museum guards, dazed and sleepy on the graveyard shift,
I suppose these interlopers came armed
with a shopping list and box cutters,
worked quickly, lifting the art
from the wall, and not gently,
slashed the canvass from each frame.

In the dim light they must have complained
about the working conditions as they moved
from the Rembrandt to the Vermeer, the Degas
— the unlucky thirteen stolen works, thirteen fruits
but for whom? A prince shut up in his rich apartment
somewhere between Boston and the South Seas,
or a Brandoesque recluse in London or Philadelphia
with only a handful of friends—no, acquaintances—
who’d see his art, and gasp or sigh, perhaps even
touch the oil paint, tracing the drapery of Christ’s garment,
so that nicotine-stained fingers rubbed against
the master’s brush strokes, the light that seemed
to gather in the painted figure’s eyes and shine out
from paint and canvas to catch the viewer’s gaze?

Or maybe the canvasses are shut-ins themselves,
rolled up and stashed in an attic or barn,
the thieves perhaps not so smart after all,
now long dead and their confidants
addled hoarders, barricaded behind newspapers, junk mail,
packing boxes that fill floor to ceiling, leaving
only a narrow path from front door to kitchen.

The museum’s glass addition sparkles
in the winter sun, people line up in the glittering
entryway, pay the price of admission and wander
from gallery to gallery, fixing on what’s here,
every wall covered, the art jammed so closely
it’s easy to forget what’s not there
till you enter, single file, the room
with the empty frames, the nothing of it all
startles you, and you think
who did this, and why?

Hard not to take it personally,
the absence of these canvasses,
as if you could walk right up to the woman
in long black evening dress, the pearls glistening
around her white neck, roping her waist,
and whisper sympathetic words– great loss,
dear Isabella, infuriating, irreplaceable, tragedy—

Walk through the crowd waiting to retrieve
coats and umbrellas, more people
than you’ve ever seen here, hear them
talking about the missing stuff, wondering
aloud, asking guards for details, hear
the same story over and over, it’s
a prayer that ends with
Give it back, give us back our art.

 

 

 

 

 

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