American Sublime

by Mark Doty

Mark Doty

St. Johnsbury, Vermont

Closing time at the Athenaeum,
but this visitor bat
(who knows how he got in)
seems intent on staying the night;
our waving arms, a rolled Times,
the janitor’s broom haven’t fazed him a bit.

In flits and starts he swoops
in crazy eights from cornice to
pilaster, chandelier to book-
shelf top, finial to plaster-
work to pediment. He seems
especially to like the vast

painting he skims like a pond,
a Bierstadt prospect of Yosemite,
billboard for immensity. The painter’s
out to correct our sense of scale:
grandeur meant not to diminish
but enlarge, as the eye hurries

up that cleft dome of rock
to hazy light, light made material,
crown of glory, a suffused
atmosphere intended to mean
intensely. Our adventurer
doesn’t stop to look, careening

above this antique ad for fresh air
as though he owned it,
and these books and music stands
and brass easels which display
last century’s genre paintings
leaning back, labeled, heavily framed.

What’s more out of date, nature
or the representation of it?
A velvet dust-rag wing
brushes canvas, granite dome,
the varnished vastness,
then rests a beat on that bust of

—Emerson? And now we
visitors, though we’ve all enjoyed
the unexpected fluttery show,
give up. Time to go home.
Where did we park? Dim the lamps.
Last glance: bat and Bierstadt

all in the dark. Nothing. No,
there he is! Flying, just visible
in the faint signal of the exit sign:
our little hero circumambulating still
the gloss of oil, the polished pools
and waterfall, our rocks and rills.


Last updated December 21, 2022