imprint the swinging air...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

X. J. Kennedy

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 let 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.


Kennedy’s poem – and I first encountered it in my teens, such an ideal time – has always struck me as words in perfect play, and in step with their subject – in this case, Marcel Duchamp’s masterpiece, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) – a painting that rattled the world.

The poem is in constant motion in its language, creating a sharp landscape: toe upon toe, she sifts in sunlight, we spy beneath the banister, a constant thresh of thigh on thigh, imprint the swinging air. We are compelled to see – not just read – this poem. “One-woman waterfall” is exact in its description, and leads to a stop that, like the painting, forever holds its subject in motion. An impossibility – but there she is in the poem – and in the painting.

There’s not one wasted word in this stunning lyric. A pinnacle moment for the poet.


Thanks to Laurel K. Dodge for posting the painting.


Peter said...

Thanks for this.
The poem really plays off the painting very well, doesn't it?

sam of the ten thousand things said...

I agree with you, Peter - very connected. Thanks for stopping by.

LKD said...

Wow. You must be psychic. I was going to ask you if you knew the name of the ekprhastic poem that was written in reponse or as an ode to the painting.

One-woman waterfall.

Gosh, I want someone to call me that.

Helluva painting. Helluva poem.

Thanks for reading my mind, sir.

(A snowing flesh. Wow.)

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Appreciate your words, LKD. Whatever is created between the poem and the painting becomes a crossing of paths - leading away from and into...

C. E. Chaffin said...

I found the painting immaterial, the poem was so complete.

Am I reaching to think that "Almost Eden" shares some features, at least lucidity and brevity, with this great poem?

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Not reaching, no, CE. I can hear a connection between the two poems in the syntax of the lines.

"Almost Eden" is a fine piece, and deserving of a feature.