Wednesday, March 11, 2009

ut pictura poesis descends a staircase

Here's X. J. Kennedy's "Nude Descending a Staircase," published in 1959 or 1960. From the title we know that Kennedy was in some sense at least rewriting or reworking the image of Duchamp's great early modern kinetic-cubist painting of the same name. I could go on and on about this poem as a 1950s-style poetical quietism. I won't here. Maybe what one can say on this score will be obvious. Whereas in the Duchamp the subject position is everywhere at once (we are seeing the nude from all angles - she moves and thus our rendering of her must be dynamic), here we are watching her from below - down the stairs. (In porn-ish pics I believe this is called "upskirt." Google that word and watch out.) From that vantage "we" watch her thighs rub together and although there's "the swinging air" the image is static. We've seen her, spied her. rendered her. Her descent is likened (it is not itself but something like it) and then, in the final line of the poem, the motion is not motion, but has a definitive end. Her motions are collected into a shape, a metered and rhymed who-has-zoomed-who unmistakable shape. This poem about a painting about constant mimesis-defying movement ironizes that kind of movement.

Here you go:

Nude Descending a Staircase

Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on. Nor on her mind.

We spy beneath the banister
A constant thresh of thigh on thigh--
Her lips imprint the swinging air
That parts to her parts go by.

One-woman waterfall, she wears
Her slow descent like a long cape
And pausing, on the final stair
Collects her motions into shape.