“’Beauty is truth, truth, beauty’”
“What’s beauty anyway but ugliness if it hurts you?”
When Michelangelo unveiled the Pieta at the turn of the 16th century, critics called it the most beautiful piece of marble in Italy, which, as far as Italy was concerned, made it the most beautiful thing in the world. The bright, gently variegated marble itself, the hard stone’s smooth high polish, the astonishingly realistic figures, and, maybe best of all, the work’s blend of Renaissance classicism and the religious emotion that carried through from previous centuries.
Western Europe was poised to find the first of Michelangelo’s great works beautiful, and he sculpted something that, despite centuries of cultural shifting, has never lost the admiration of viewers. What we find beautiful modulates, while some genius—nature, Shakespeare—weathers the changes.
In my own life, what I have found to be beautiful has modulated, too, although I don’t remember much preoccupation with beauty as a small boy. A teacher, a couple of classmates, maybe. I knew I should find beauty in nature, everyone seemed to agree on this, but trees were mostly trees. Climb-ability trumped other aesthetics. I would point out birds to my dad, who has always loved the outdoors, but I was mostly looking for the beauty of his approval.
As a teen, I discovered beauty in music and writing. The Beatles and Robert Frost and Virginia Woolf. The songs on Abbey Road seemed to animate something deep in me that could only translate as singing and dancing. Frost’s imagery and Woolf’s stunning, layered sentences lifted the ceiling and dropped the floor for my appreciation of beauty. These discoveries came hand-in-hand with teenage depression and anxiety, and I wonder if appreciation of beauty is predicated on struggle. This seems doubtful, but due to the central role it has played in my life, I’m always glad to find some value in struggle.
Near the end of high school, I sold a stupendous number of candy bars and visited France with a group of teachers and students. We saw the great cathedrals and chateaus, and I was impressed with the play of light through stained glass. I remember being a fair amount more impressed with the play of light on a girl from Texas who had joined our group.
On the night before a visit across the Italian border to Florence, feeling jilted by the lovely Texan I drank too much brandy and cheap red wine. As a result, my first bad hangover dominated the Florentine experience. When I made my way down the hall of the Academia to Michelangelo’s David, I was impressed by the statue’s size, but felt otherwise unmoved. I mostly felt thirsty and wanted to sit down.
Beauty seems to depend, sometimes embarrassingly, on our receptivity to it. The world must pass through the filter of our moods and circumstances, and God help it on that brief journey. In a good enough mood, I have found beauty in sparkling garbage. Unfortunately, I’m sure mood has kept many lovely things at bay, though I have, however, had the luck to return to Florence again at a more responsive time, and the David, like the Pieta, blew me away with its naturalism and grandeur.
In my present life, any sculpting with the white stuff has less highbrow aspirations. Last winter, Sofia’s fifth, she and I crafted a snow queen in the front yard from a heavy, early snowfall. When we rolled the heavy slush into balls, it packed almost too well and ripped up old oak leaves and poop and grass. I tried to cover her over with a fresh layer, the way Augustus marbled over old Roman brick, but our queen remained tufted in unsightly, even suggestive fashion, patinated with dirt and dog piss. Sofia didn’t care. When we added an oak leaf wreath, Sofia pronounced our queen “pretty.”
Her assessment seemed pure, and free of the more adult understanding of beauty based on transience. The clean blue sky looks beautiful because of its color, but also because we’ve seen a hell of a lot more clouds. The closer we get to being gone, the harder we try to hold onto the simple beauty around us. This appreciation is not cheapened to me by our desperation—in this case, experience helps us see the breadth and value of beauty. We learn to find beauty in character, in the texture left by corrosion—on our faces, our mountains— in part simply because it is interesting and has persevered.
Sofia’s snow queen persevered much of last winter, serenely ruling our yard until a February thaw, when the ground puller her close and left just a small, hairy nub that froze again in subsequent cold. While I dragged Sofia around in a plastic sled, we kept an eye on the nub, and when the little street we carved threatened in its trajectory the remains of our queen, we leaned into a roundabout to venerate and preserve her spirit of vulgar beauty.
Scott Bade’s gorgeous poem, “Liftgate of Love,” provided the spark for this issue. Clever and sinewy, the poem’s lines obstruct just enough, unveiling like snow-melt. I love the handling of beauty and beauty’s inevitable loss here—the fresh descriptions of age-old dualism (beauty’s “contract with erosion”), and the way the poem swerves from youthful enchantment to a knowing sobriety, while never ceasing to delight with language. Bade takes on big questions while he leaps and changes course like a gazelle.
“Written in the Ice,” flash fiction by Lowan Lykaios, features a speaker who finds (and sadly fails to find) beauty in the handwriting of loved ones. The piece creates fascinating tensions: between the personality of the pen and the printed word, between themed sections, some of which connect logically, some emotionally, and between its own playfulness and grief.
The beauty of a teenage candy striper hits young Bernard Lemongello like a bolt of lightning, just days after an actual bolt of lightning strikes him in “One Summer,” Douglas Grant Mine’s short story. Mine writes this memorable romance with humor, excellent pacing, and a feel for adolescence that never patronizes.
Photo By: Caleb and Tara VinCross