Winged Victory of Samothrace

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Why I Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review Reader Bryan Byrdlong introduces Alana Folsom’s “Winged Victory of Samothrace” from our Summer 2020 issue.

From the beginning of Alana Folsom’s, “Winged Victory of Samothrace” we might think that we are embarking on an exclusively ekphrastic journey. The title is of course a direct reference to the marble sculpture of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, which was crafted around 2nd century BC and currently residing in the Louvre Museum. However, rather than a reconstruction or even a reimagining of the sculpture, we instead are treated to a sublime embodiment. In the opening lines the speaker says,

“You plan to leave him / like you’re leaving // a museum:”

We might think that the speaker is addressing a past self, but the modifying verb “plan” is in the present tense. Thus, this action, this “plan” is rendered timeless even as a work of art might be considered timeless. The couplet structure that follows highlights this duality even as it carries us through Folsom’s exquisite interweaving of personal and human history. By the time we get to,

“Already forgotten: the Art / of the Americas, now // smudges of earth & embittered / tones; the Ancient Greeks”

we are fully aware of the paradox that has arisen in this poem’s pattern. We know that although the two exhibits are allegedly “forgotten” in the personal history they have been miraculously remembered here in this poem’s museum setting. The “Art of the Americas” and “Ancient Greek” exhibits are also juxtaposed as an instance of both historical comparison and repetition. However, the poem would not have differentiated itself if it were simply engaging with the idea of history repeating. Folsom’s poem succeeds because it creates of the speaker’s personal history its own piece of art in conversation with the statue that it references. The ‘you’ of the poem is not merely translated but transcendent, as is the moment of victory.

Winged Victory of Samothrace

You plan to leave him
like you’re leaving

a museum: remembering
the glimpses of red & deep

purple. The moments you like
least lingering longest.

Already forgotten: the Art
of the Americas, now

smudges of earth & embittered
tones; the Ancient Greeks just

where you lost your head.
You plan to leave

remembering the frames
of your arguments

more than the words,
gilded & wrought. You

plan to leave pretending
it was all worth it, though you know

there were entire wings
you didn’t need

to fly.