My office mate and I had a conversation about Ozymandias, a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley more than two hundred years ago. Fragments of the poem rattled in my memory; my colleague knew it by heart. Lines that stuck with me: ‘And on the pedestal these words appear/ ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/ Look on my works ye Mighty and despair!’ The colossal stature had fallen, leaving only two vast and trunkless legs and a shattered visage half sunk in the sand. This was Shelley’s commentary on the transience of power and fame.
Ozymandias was called to my mind Sunday, September 29th by a New York Times Magazine piece titled ‘Heads of State, Virginia.’ Author Mark Leibovich subtitled his article ‘150 miles out of Washington is a crumbling shrine to presidential history.’ Photographer Hannah Price captured all forty-two busts of American presidents in the middle distance, showing Virginia hills receding in the background. The photo evoked Easter Island, but with more realistic faces.
Sculptor David Arickes had fashioned the likenesses out of concrete, each fifteen to eighteen feet tall and weighing about ten tons each. Originally created for President’s Park near Williamsburg, the busts were moved in 2010 after President’s Park closed due to low attendance and poor revenues.
Ironically, I had written the text for the Hoover head in October 2003. History churns and burns pretty quickly these days. It took less than twenty years for these presidential visages to shatter and stare blank-eyed over Croaker, Virginia: ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!’