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Monday, September 22, 2008

X.J.Kennedy's Nude

X. J. Kennedy’s Nude
Gary Lehmann

Ekphratic verse employs the rhetorical device of relating a new piece of art to another media to achieve its own point. To see how this works in practice, let’s look at a painting and then a poem written about it.

The painting is The Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp. It was unveiled at the 1913 Armory Show in New York. After that, it was a repeated theme of the painter. The other work he displayed in that show was a men’s urinal marked “R. Mutt.” Man as dog. Marcel Duchamp had a rare sense of humor, and these pieces created just the sort of uproar he wanted.

Duchamp intends that even today we should be shocked, disappointed, and self-critical upon viewing his Nude. He intends to confront us and to make fun of our expectations. For one thing, there is nothing nude about her, no nakedness appears, just the illusion of nakedness in paint and canvas. The painting is really all about illusions.

Duchamp’s works frequently convey a wry hint of accusation. The Nude is taking infinite pleasure in the sheer spectacle of herself descending the staircase. She is inviting open idolatry with her slow motion sensuality. She is displaying her nudity for all it’s worth. Here is the most risqué robot you’ve ever seen, a veritable declaration of robotic independence from man’s confining morality. Eat your heart out mere mortals!

The Nude is a parody of real life where movie stars wear semi-transparent dresses that almost reveal something naughty so they can get the attention of the television cameras which are lined up to catch her strutting down a red carpet and then going into a room where she is supposed to pretend to like everyone and applaud when her rival gets all the recognition she so richly deserves. Sometimes art is just like life, only toned down.

This painting has been mocked by critics who have called it an explosion in a shingle mill. I recently heard a report on the national news that the CIA reproduced a plastic pile of dog doo with a radio transmitter in it so that they could overhear the conversation of two men who habitually met at the same place in a Moscow park. I think Duchamp would have approved of this level of clandestine artistic license. It fits right in with his image of modern life.

Behind all this foolishness, Duchamp had a serious purpose in mind as well. The kind of stop motion photography he depicts in The Nude Descending a Staircase is intended to suggest, I believe, the irreversible and ephemeral quality of time and the camera-like progression of images that clatter through our well-worn sprockets to create what we are pleased to characterize as reality. To Duchamp modern life has made us all very much like this robot compelled to display her stuff in public. We’ve all been turned into automatons.

Now let’s look at the poem X. J. Kennedy wrote based on this painting.

Nude Descending a Staircase by X. J. Kennedy

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.

X. J. Kennedy’s poem has a different task from that which Duchamp tackled. If all he achieves in his 1961 poem is an imitation of a painting unveiled in 1913 -- which already has stated its message with plentiful clarity -- then why bother? Duchamp will always do Duchamp better than Kennedy can do Duchamp. The trick is for Kennedy to find something unique to say on the same topic, rather like a web chat board. It’s only worth reading if it moves onto new ground.

So what does Kennedy say that Duchamp does not? I think that what Kennedy adds to the painting is the personality of the nude in question. What the poet can do, and Kennedy does, is suggest something of the nude woman’s intentions and attitudes. When he cites her “snowing flesh” he suggests a certain coldness in her attitude, later reinforced by calling her a “one-woman waterfall.”

What Kennedy sees in this painting is the accumulated images of a performance, rather like all the frames of a film sequence bunched up so you can see them all at once. She “collects her motions into shape,” like an artist of the dishabille, deliberately inconsiderate of fashion, consciously concupiscent. “Her lips imprint the swinging air.” Her nudity is her clothing. “Her slow descent like a long cape.” In the poem, we see that she is consciously showing off her snazzy bod. “A constant thresh of thigh on thigh --/…/That parts to let her parts go by.”

These themes are effected by the use of alliteration in the opening stanza, the application of rhythm to the last lines of each stanza, and the use of metaphors to heighten the satiric characterization. Kennedy does not offer a radically different interpretation of the painting in his poem, but it comes from a different perspective. In this poem, Kennedy manages to use his words to reveal motivations that paint cannot reveal nearly as well.



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