KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 9: Spring 2018
Tanka Prose: 500 words
Author Notes: 138 words

The Miletus Torso *

by Charles D. Tarlton

The Miletus Torso, sculpture by unknown artist circa 490 BCE

And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power.

—Rainer Maria Rilke


The first things we all notice are the monstrous amputations: there are no arms or hands, no legs or feet, nor any neck or head remaining. From across the room at first, I thought it was an heroic cuirass on display, one of those breast armor pieces of the sort we’re used to seeing on Roman generals and emperors in the movies.

rough, dismembering
Time instructs its surgeries
knocks everything off
the walls of the City turned
bare rock stubble in the ground

hobbling on the stump
its one leg, struggling to move
off its pedestal
energy stuffed from the strain
against the stone’s inertia

motionless ideas
of action, his potential
drawn in vectors
all abstraction, here to there
remains just an idea


Imagine, then, in stone, the fingers of a left hand curled around the cherry-dogwood shaft of a spear, while the right hand holds the rim of the hoplite shield leaning against his right thigh. Alternatively, think of an ancient Corybant, his left external oblique muscle twisting slightly at exactly the moment when his leg poised to step out the driving rhythm of the dance.

whoever the god
figure (what little we have)
was, a common man
posed for the sculptor
he had no lights on within

the human figure
cold chiseled and hammered out
of hard marmaíro
its figurative fire’s inside
the rock’s calcite glow itself

here we have human
and stone all at once, the man
(or god) emerges
from the marble, the marble
goes on waiting underneath


The Miletus Torso represents the human figure deconstructed, and we can only speculate as to the process by which arms, legs, and head were broken off and lost. By accident, as it were, we are forced to concentrate on the center and imagine the whole lost figure. Michelangelo’s Atlas Slave** represents the opposite case in which arms, legs, and head are (at least partially) “missing.” But rather than being lost they are blocked forever in an endless process of becoming. The artist has deliberately forced us to create what he has left out. Ironically, then, the same ingenuity is required to understand each of these two works; in the case of the ancient torso we have to visualize something that is missing but has been lost; in the case of the Renaissance slave, we have to visualize what is missing and is yet to be.

unforgiving stones
reluctant to reveal their
secrets. Imagining
these ghosts within the marble
flapping their cold empty sleeves

everything in germ
or vanishing from decay
it is the cycle
of yes and no, of here and gone
the pitch and plunge of the world

how just a hammer
and a chisel can carve off
in stone the moment’s
remembrance of what once was
or its exhilaration


Author’s Notes:

* Kouros from Miletus, marble, circa 490-480 B.C., H. 1.32 m

** In the summer of 1967, I travelled to Florence on a Canada Council Grant to study the papers of Machiavelli in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, but the museum was closed as a result of the 1966 floods in the city. One day, at loose ends, I wandered into the Galleria dell’Accademia and saw for the first time Michelangelo’s “unfinished” prisoner statues. The figures seemed almost to be crawling out of the stone, but only partially, as hands, arms, legs, and heads all seem to be still sunk in the marble. Like any number of broken and disfigured statues from antiquity, these statues seem almost to reveal more than more conventional and completely finished statues. One of these unfinished works is the Atlas Slave:

Atlas Slave, sculpture by Michelangelo


Publisher’s Notes:

1. The epigraph is from “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” in Rainer Maria Rilke’s second volume of new poems. The poem as translated by Stephen Mitchell in Ahead of All Parting: Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke (Modern Library, 1995) may be viewed at Poets dot Org.

2. The Torso of Miletus resides at the Louvre Museum in Paris and is listed as simply Male torso (torse masculin) at their website; scroll down that page for technical and historical details about the sculpture.

3. Michelangelo’s Atlas Slave is on display in the Hall of Prisoners at Accademia Gallery in Florence; scroll down the page for details and photographs (including one of “the Prisoner’s corridor”).


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