Nude Descending

"Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks."


"Nude Descending a Staircase" by Duchamp

"Nude Descending a Staircase" by Duchamp

The first time I saw "Nude Descending a Staircase" by Duchamp I was in first or second grade.  They had some program where a lady would drive a big trailer full of art (nice quality, large prints of famous paintings, to be more precise) and visit classrooms.  I LOVED that lady and her trailer.  I remember her talking about this particular Duchamp painting, and I thought it was interesting.  All of the different lines and shapes seemed to be in motion.  I thought EVERYTHING the art lady showed us was interesting.  I wanted to live in the trailer with her and drive across the country with all that art.  I was filled with excitement! 

But when I grew up, I must have forgotten my initial enthusiasm for "Nude Descending a Staircase."  I thought the lines and shapes were uninspired and boring, and Duchamp was worthy of nothing but my apathy.  I never gave the painting another look.  Never, that is, until a month ago, when I found this poem by X.J. Kennedy.   


Poem 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.


Sigh..... This poem speaks to me.  The "...air/ That parts to let her parts go by."  It makes me think of the many different parts of myself, the multitudes I contain, normally hidden away, but sometimes flowing free, like a "one-woman waterfall."  I take a closer look at the vibrating rhythms of the lines, the mysterious machinery hidden in the shadows, and the awkward grace of all of those elbows and knees.  I keep looking and looking at this painting.

So, somehow, the poet X.J. Kennedy has reclaimed the Duchamp painting for me, and placed it back into the temple of my heart, the temple where I hang all of the paintings that I love so much, and that speak so intimately to me.

I hope you will look at the painting again, and read the poem again.  And maybe a third time.  My 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Augenblick, always advised us to read every poem three times.  Until we did that, we couldn't even pretend to understand it.  Perhaps a painting is the same way.  You can't just look at it once, as a child, or twice, as a young adult, but you must continue to go back to it again, and again, as you mature through life.


Poetry Submissions Accepted Here:  This post is Part 1 of an ongoing series called "Poems About Paintings."  If you find a poem that fits, or better yet, if you write one yourself, please feel free to submit it to me.  I will consider it for publication in a future blog post.  Write a poem about a painting you love, or a painting you hate, or a painting that refuses to stay in either category.  I can't wait to see what comes forth!