Portrait with Unknown Dimensions



In Minneapolis, I recently attended an exhibit 
which mourned American soldiers lost in Iraq.
One walk through was enough for me. The artist,

who wrote each dead individual’s name in cursive
on a scroll, makes a statement about the scale of thousands
of men meeting their massive, unnecessary deaths. 

American mourning. Outside the museum, I am overwhelmed,
not by this piece’s contents, but by what is missing
from the exhibit, unmentioned: I recall at least 600,000 Iraqi bodies

of collateral damage. Though I can’t imagine an equivalent
artwork of this scale. Where would it show? How much
would it sell for?
What names do we write down? Many nights,

in my apartment, I have a dream where I sit restrained with a rice bag
over my head—Is it Abu Ghraib? Guantanamo? Does it matter?
Once was enough. But the night goes on: I brush my teeth,

tear off my sheets to sleep on the waterproof cover. Here,
in Minnesota, my friend works for a startup that designs 
shock bracelets for trauma-related nightmares.

I would like to buy one, I say. He informs me,
as a medical device, they will run us $5,000;
the military is testing them on veterans with success.

This morning, I woke up with an image in mind: 
one of George Bush’s whimsical oil paintings of veterans— 
two amputee sergeants walking arm-in-arm across 

a putting green. The men are framed head-on, in bright
red golfing shirts, smiling at one another. How many 
paintings to redefine a legacy? How many dollars? 

Decorations? Bush’s only purchasable painting 
to date is a very popular 2013 Christmas ornament 
featuring a miniature reproduction. It sold for $29.98, 

in a quantity of thousands. As I write this, 
there’s still no information on future cost or possibility 
to acquire other works, in miniature or to scale. Similarly, 

his portraits of Putin & Karzai exist in unknown dimensions. 
My friend speculates this uncertainty of scale increases
their future value. In the market, ArtNet reports, “usually size 

[of a work] wins out”—so we pray they are small. 
Still, I find the whimsy of Bush’s portraits uncanny 
yet warm, harder to resent than I ’d like. Sure, 

let’s say the scale of suffering is relative: when I was a child 
during the 2004 U.S. presidential election, 
the neighborhood kids said to me, politely, “you believe 

in the wrong religion. In a tone only perfected with practice,
with confidence. But my suffering doesn’t/didn’t end
in mass graves. Now debate, an article asks us to consider: 

Bush is/was an amateur artist? In 2013, a Romanian hacker leaked
two self-portraits by Bush, one of him sitting in a bathtub, toes in front of him;
one of him standing in the shower, his back turned to the viewer. Some 

mornings, I stand in the shower & imagine myself in his reflection:
which side of his painting am I on? Subject or spectator? Does turning
away do all the telling? Right now, I’m walking late at night,

to a concrete bridge that stretches over the Mississippi. By the river,
in front of my selfie camera, I’m reminded of the shaving mirror
in the upper-left corner of Bush’s painted shower scene. He looks into this

silver, blurry, blankly. Even in the shower, his gaze invents self
-protection, a nazar—an evil eye. At midnight, my slab of lit 
silicon & glass is still in hand. On the screen, night redacts 

all of me but my eyes. Looking, looking, looking for security.
Like any man of wealth, Bush paints himself—visible 
from the hips up—with broader than life shoulders. Even

in his private art collection, only shared in an email
to his sister, there’s an awareness of legacy. Of lies,
no matter how small, that must be protected. Turn around.

In bed, try to hold onto a dream tonight instead: fingers curl
around your wrist like a bracelet—its pulse between REM sleep
& wake. Eyelids fluttering like a murder into the air. 


Tarik Dobbs is a writer and artist born in Dearborn, Michigan, whose poetry appears in the Best New Poets and Best of the Net anthologies, as well as in Guernica and Poetry. Dobbs works at poetry.onl and has served as a guest editor for Mizna and Zoeglossia. An incoming MFA fellow in Northwestern University’s Art, Theory, Practice program, Dobbs received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota in May 2022.