Michelangelo on the Hudson

George Drew pours himself into his enthusiasms. Retired a decade ago from teaching college English, he now devotes himself to writing, running, traveling, family life, and appreciating poetry. At readings, where we first met, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone listen with more apparent pleasure while forcing himself to sit politely in his chair. It’s as if poems turn into feathers that tickle all the way into his brain. As for running, George is built like a toothpick, or, more accurately, a Q-Tip with a full crop of whitish hair that has one last black spot above his forehead. After a reading at the Howland Center, I tried following him up the old incline trail on Beacon Mountain, once the steepest funicular railway in the world. Hard to do. Trotting up the staircase on the lower hillside, I was okay. But on the trail switchbacks, the man advanced like a billy goat, springing ahead on long legs, then pausing for the huffer and puffer to catch up. (And I fancy myself a hiker.) But at the top, marked by the brick ruins of an old powerhouse and the cleared flats that once hosted a casino, we enjoyed an expansive view of the Hudson Valley from the Catskills on the northern skyline to the Breakneck Ridge river gorge nearby. We had the idea of giving readings at stops along the river from Albany to Manhattan, perhaps troubadouring from lighthouse to lighthouse. Who knows? We’re not dead yet. A Mississippi native with storyteller’s blood, George relishes performing poetry aloud.

George has been writing poetry for 40 years. Lately, success has been catching up with him in a hurry. Last year, his American Cool won the Adirondack Literary Award. Later this year, The View from Jackass Hill will appear as the winner of the X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize from Texas Review Press. Meanwhile, his current book is The Hand That Rounded Peter’s Dome, the story of Michelangelo as told in the voices of people in Renaissance Florence who knew this sculptor and painter of the Sistine Chapel as a masterful craftsman, a son of a bitch, possibly a pervert, and a genius already destined to survive for the ages. This book resulted from George’s fascinated studies of, as he writes in his preface, “the Italian Renaissance and the wonderful cast of rogues and heroes who for one brief moment lit the minds of men with the possibility of their own grandeur.”

Here’s a poem about young Michelangelo as told by a member of the Medici circle.


Letter, 1490

My Dear———,
This young boy I have told
you of is everything I’m not: unlearned,
insensitive of speech, inquisitive of nothing
but a chisel plying stone, perhaps some paint,
and even in his stature blunt, ill-formed,
with black hair, eyes not quite defined in hue,
and teeth like the unfinished lumps of stone
he hammers at with the abandon of the damned.
As is my wont, normally I wouldn’t bat an eye
in his direction. But Lorenzo praises him.
And where Lorenzo looks is value, rest assured.
So I looked, too. And here is what I found:
a sibyl in the manner of the ancients carved
from marble he had gotten, so I’m told,
from masons in the garden, begging them
with charm no one, not even I, would guess
exists beneath that rough exterior of his.
There’s diamond there, in need of only
the sure jeweler’s hand of Time
to shape it to a gem fit for a Medici,
or even—and I don’t exaggerate—a pope.
Trust me: this young boy’s going to be a god
creating gods. The spark he carries in
his fingertips bespeaks a greater fire within.
And like Prometheus he’ll serve and master it
at once, both Beauty’s henchman and her king.
I almost pity him the torment he will know.

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