On The Dictionary's Marginal Illustrations
Pliers balance above The Thinker's head.
He's not there for art's sake, but to demonstrate—
and contemplate—the meaning of plinth, the block
or slab on which a statue rests. Below the plinth
rests a plow, not a wooden one slowly cutting
earth behind a horse, but a metal, tractor-borne
industrial beast with an array of blades:
they shine like wicked teeth.
Plowboy and plowman are defined, not shown.
Plow steel is high strength, used not in plows
but wire ropes. Plowshare is a simple noun,
its picture a simple sketch, a blade
made in eight quick lines, and nowhere described
as beaten from a sword, whose entry shows
an ornamental saber, the hilt all jeweled
(while the hilt for hilt is functional, a cage to guard
the hand), the blade engraved:
art's beauty helps define this tool of war.
But art emerges for its own sake—the whaler
shown in scrimshaw or a detail from Cezanne's
The Pond illuminating post-impressionism.
Art also shows us fantasy:
a Grecian urn depicts a satyr; pages later
I find The Hermes of Praxiteles. He leans,
one-armed, against a tree trunk, on which the crying baby,
Dionysos, sits. To quiet him, Hermes
held an Olympian diamond. The child reaches for the stone
lost with the missing arm.
(What gifts the gods keep from us!) But here
his only purpose is to show a strut,
the marble brace between the tree trunk and his hip.
So much is here to show us something else.
One picture confused me as a child, when I heard
my aunt was sick. I looked up cancer, found
the constellation next to the disease's definition.
I imagined the stars were her cells, dots of every size,
black points clustering into strange shapes.
Although solid lines connected those dots,
I had to stretch my mind to see the crab.