Reading: After Hours at the National Portrait Gallery


After Hours at the National Portrait Gallery

What would the hall full of past presidents make of today's America?

By Janice Lynch Schuster

True story: My distant uncle is Ulysses S. Grant—my family is related via my father, Dent, to Grant’s wife, Julia Dent. After taking visual scholar Izetta Autumn Mobley’s remarkable tour with CoveyClub of the Obamas’ portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, I paused to nod at “Uncle” Ulysses. My poet’s mind began to wonder what he’d have to say were he to come down and mingle with the presidents, meet George Washington, maybe Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt. What would any of them say of the duplicity of their lives and secrets revealed?

What would the hall full of great—and less than great—Americans make of today’s America? What of the man, still alive, portrayed in the chair painted as if by an Old Master, surrounded by flowers full of meaning and secret messages? I was so inspired by Izetta’s tour that when I returned home that night, I could only think about all I had seen and heard, and stayed up late until a poem emerged. I was energized and fired up. I’d been with the CoveyClub in real life, and I felt as though I’d found home.

Nightfall in the hall
of Presidents.
At last, they rest.
Shouting schoolchildren,
shushing chaperones,
interpreting tour guides,
peeping alarms,
hub-bub of history—gone.

Rooms silent as the dark.
Security beams light
floors from portrait
to portrait, mano a mano.

They have crossed party lines
in sleep and time,
hang here now, level
and steady, so much space
to consider
what might
have been said
or not
but their painted lips
are still.

Instead, each man,
once most powerful,
gazes helplessly into the dark,
rues his secrets
now revealed:
his teeth, his slaves,
women and rages,
so many regrets. Poor decisions,
finances, bad habits,
failing body. Papers
never burned
rivals left to tell a tale.

All revealed like a mud flat
drained, searching for a body.
Whatever he accomplished
less intriguing than what
he tried to hide.

Time, that great shapeshifter
changes all perspectives,
freeing men and women.
Now, world wholly remade,
even the smartest of them
would not know
how to find his way home.

So this is what he fathered,
Washington marvels, that foolish
rainbow glowing
hundreds of years over his shoulder
as if it had been child’s play.

That war that hit him every day
and took his breath away
then his life.

I am not thinking,
Lincoln thinks. I am praying
and posing, poor and sad.
Does no one understand
the weight of those bodies
blood of the countryside?
My own boy, gone?

Each man is relieved
when silence comes to Obama
who has no ghost to ponder
anything, to watch the crowds
come day by day to pose
as if for their own portraits.

Men button suit jackets,
women pat down stray hair.
Even children, unbidden, lower
their voices and wait, jostling
until they are close enough

to feel his gaze, then grow quiet.
Each visitor stands so still and tall
for a portrait with this man,
the only President they have known.
Like him, they do not smile,
but gaze out into time future,
that place they will inhabit
but cannot see.

No one can tell them
what to expect, least of all
the assembled dead
who have seen
yet cannot say
what they know



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  1. Howard

    Wow. I didn’t read this last week, when it was first brought to my attention. It wasn’t such a good week, low energy. That was before I knew this week would be horrible. Glad I got around to it. I love it.

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