Noble Chart, A Radiance–1794

(“Monsieur Lavoisier and his Wife,” Jacques-Louis David,
1788; The Metropolitan Museum of Art)


It is the morning of May 8th;
Madame Lavoisier has just been
orphaned. Within a few more minutes
she, likewise, will be widowed;

the guillotine, oddly taking the name
of a man who did not invent it.

May 8th, thus invests itself,
not in the talent of one
of Jacques-Louis David’s
death warrants,
but in one set of his details,
which, today, beyond heroic,
feels meaningful and human:

a full white dress, a soft, luminous mass,
a cascade of curls, the elegant pale blue
bow and sash, and the oddly
prophetic red velvet table cloth.
The felicity of the shoe buckle and—
like a fine glass instrument in
a laboratory––the black silk stocking
covering Lavoisier’s extended leg
take on a luster from hues around them.

With a quill scratch,
Aristotle’s essences give way
to the emerging periodic table.

An example of what to do
with knowledge
if, indeed, it is the stuff
that actually makes us human.

In the next five years, the orderly
radiance will dissimulate
into the cruel fragrance of ideals!

The noble privilege of cataloging observations
will succumb to the emerging urgency
of the next elemental question,
“Who bears witness to the shimmering
unreason of this most deplorable single casualty?”

“Never forget; never forgive,” the dark
precision of the glinting tooth of class
and counter-class spell bounds.
The familiar weapon once used
for attack drops. “There
is no defense.”

Where is the beauty that hallowed
Death has erased so quickly
with the tip of his wing?

Scott Hightower is a poet living with one foot in New York City, one in Texas, and one in Madrid. His third collection, Part of the Bargain, received the 2004 Hayden Carruth Award. His translations from Spanish have garnered him a Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. He teaches at NYU, and has taught poetry, non-fiction, and translation at Drew, F.I.T., Fordham, and Poets House.