by Stephen Gibson


It was a sperm whale in the center
of the piazza being hauled up by a boy
pulling a rope over his shoulder,

a kid in shorts and polo, and nearby
hung three narwhales from a gallows
erected just for them. The hanging narwhales

and the boy in blue shorts and striped polo,
and the huge, black whale behind him
that was tethered to him by a thick cable

of hemp, were only illusions—
life-size figures made out of fiberglass
by some artist in Pietrasanta, where I’d gone

to see a decommissioned church
I’d heard about, which had been converted
into a meeting space for social protests,
but I hadn’t heard about this.

But that’s what I saw turning the corner;
no hint of anything earlier at the train station
I’d just walked from, not even a poster,

which, for a public art exhibition
like this, you would have expected
some flyer or brochure, some mention

of it somewhere, to attract tourists; instead,
nothing. When I got out at the train station
a girl was lying on the hill, arm behind her head,

sunning herself on the grass, as a dozen
men, like me, looked up her skirt (not hard
since one leg formed a T over the other one

with her sandal foot tapping). An ear bud
was held in place by an orange-polished
fingernail.  She was listening to her iPod

as men filed past looking up her dress.

I found out some protest was going on,
some Earth-Day-Global-Warming-Climate-
Change event, all about extinction

and doing something before it’s too late.
That sort of thing—boy hauling a sperm whale,
narwhales hanging from gallows—while people ate

pizza and drank Peroni at the outside tables.
The restaurants were packed. I ate at one later,
and by then the narwhales’ shadows, like a sun-dial’s,

had moved across to the other side of the piazza.

I followed the corpse of the sperm whale
up the piazza, staring at its massiveness
as if the thing were real, as if the brown cable

tied around its bulk was nothing less
than real hemp and that the kid bent ahead of me
was really straining to haul that corpse

up to where the church was.  Why he
wanted to haul that corpse to the other end
of the piazza to the church was a mystery

to me, like my first seeing that grandstand
of narwhales after seeing that girl as she
was listening to her iPod, her hand

holding the ear bud in place, showing everyone her panties.

Everything must be protected—it is a duty—
even though nothing lasts
that’s the translation an Italian woman gave me

when I looked at the banner over the church’s
entrance and asked her. The woman was feeding
her toddler some yogurt and fruit mix

on the steps, but she didn’t miss a thing,
wiping the excess off of her kid’s lip,
looking back at the banner hanging

over the church entrance, holding the cup
under the kid’s chin, and answering
some stranger who stood at the bottom step

and who had asked her something
while her kid tried to get out of the stroller
to retrieve a set of plastic key rings

that he dropped. I thanked her.   

Inside, all of the murals were defaced—
methodically—like you’d score adhesive
on the back of a tile to stick it to a surface;

every human figure was vandalized; beehives
of chisel marks sat on human shoulders; no faces—
no more graphic novels of saints’ lives

for the medieval illiterate;  no altar, just space—
but space that clearly left evidence
of something removed not to be replaced—

like the pews: all over the marble floor were dents.

That’s what the decommissioned church
looked like; it was also dark and smelly like a stable;
at least, this church was, and my hunch is

that was intentional because of the exhibit: multiple
environmental concerns symbolically addressed
through papier-mâché gorillas, elephants and other animals

with future extinction dates—and a petition to sign in protest.

8.  Coda
For the girl on the hillside showing
her panties, listening to her iPod;
for the waiter who went back to bring

me my check; for the courtyard
I passed where this old man sat at a table
by himself; for the god

who no longer exists in the receptacle
built for him eight centuries ago;
for the fiberglass boy and whale

and especially the artist; for the faces in the windows
of the gift shops, and the faces of those waiting in line
at the restaurants; for the woman feeding her kid yogurt—

for all of our extinctions—this protest is mine.