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The Bridge Poetry Series highlights an esteemed literary tradition: poetry inspired by art. This series establishes a unique opportunity for Wisconsin poets to write and read ekphrastic poems. In the second century AD, ekphrasis (description) was a rhetorical exercise of creating mental images with words, and it frequently began with a description of artworks.
The program was launched in spring 2012 by Madison poets Katrin Talbot, Sara Parrell, Susan Elbe, and Jesse Lee Kercheval in collaboration with the Chazen Museum of Art. Twice yearly, in conjunction with a spring and fall exhibition, about a dozen poets visit the exhibition, write poems, and then take part in a group reading at the Chazen. The series intends to build bridges between art forms and among poets all over Wisconsin and celebrate diversity of style, affiliation, age, and ethnicity.
For the Bridge Poetry Series reading on March 21, 2013, poets wrote in response to 1934: A New Deal for Artists. Their poems are published here. Enjoy.
I go to the barber and say, Barber,
make me a better man. Make me genius.
Make me patient. I want my
skin to always be soft
on the inside. I want a fade
in the back. To always smell
like rhubarb pie. I want to love
my life forever.
Can you do that?
The barbershop hums
like the beginning of a bee.
My barber is silent while his face twists around.
He begins to weep. His weep billows
across the floor like a bowl of dust.
I begin to think I have asked too much
but I remind him, I am the paying customer!
I came here with a rare bit of cash
for his red cash register.
In exchange, he cuts my hair. That’s the contract.
It’s not my business
what he does with the hair I leave behind—
make a wig, a bird’s nest, a mattress, or floss his teeth—
so long as he makes me look good,
for I am the paying customer.
I am not weeping, he tells me from behind
his handlebar mustache. I am making
you a better man. Rhubarb pie, et cetera.
His tears grow cobwebs. Spiders
come to rest under his swollen eyes.
He shows me the back of my head
and it’s true, I do look genius.
I take in my hands
his clipper blade and here I am again, seven,
sculpting three-legged cats
out of clay and sending them to the kiln.
I always began with a single lump
and squeezed a whole body from it,
tail, whiskers, ears.
Patient, yes. Rhubarb pie,
yes. Genius, American, et cetera.
Wait, I tell my barber.
I take it all back. Can you make me
into a three legged cat instead?
But he is already sweeping up
the shattered clay around me.
Some other man is next in line.
after painting Skating in Central Park by Agnes Tait, 1934
In Wisconsin winter, fields stretch out and endlessly
white keeps falling on white. . .
Suddenly one morning the snow is spotted with dark bodies,
the sky strung with migrating waterfowl
returning, geese sit huddled
honking into late winter storms,
while beaks of sandhill cranes lift like praying hands,
and mallards gather where day by day ice returns to water.
Beyond calendar and almanac, a cold waiting—
and feathered instincts like faith.
On Central Park’s winter slopes and frozen pond
an idyll of Americana, 1930’s diorama laced with color and animation
a bounty of outstretched limbs racing the fleeing day.
Beyond the sight of Hoovervilles, backlit by golden sky
sled riders follow sled riders, cap to boot down the slope,
matrons attend bonnet-headed babies, skinny-legged mutts pant and chase,
while a jumble of skaters—red blue and brown—set their blades,
hands linked like cut-out dolls, and push off on tingling legs
and lean and push and lean and build a holy
speed until they whirl themselves forward
slant forms following a frozen arc, a rhapsody
of flushed bodies moving clockwise and counter, becoming
on the other side of ice, a silver memory of color—
now called from glistening mirage by barking dogs and childlike squeals.
Here, in depression era New York, misted layers of faded skyline waver
just a grey city drop cloth, an artist’s outline of fabled civilization sinking into darkness.
While joyous evening exiles follow arabesque patterns across the park footbridge,
breathe the soft dove call of tranquil forgetfulness,
and enter a comforting circle of twinkling lights and woodland sentinels.
Here tree trunks and their tributaries delicately ink themselves on every surface:
a nest of intricate lines tattoo the island hill
brush anchors rocks and copper-coated watchers
branches extend into the damp steam of encroaching dusk.
Until in the fairy-tale frolic of this imaginary forest
the simple bent lines of limbs and bodies become labyrinth;
beyond the warming house, on the far side of the hill,
silhouettes— dog, skater, tree—overlap and tangle
become indistinguishable, all nothing but leaning energy
each a dark digit, a tally in the ancient sum of hopefulness.
As March days grow longer, flock by flock they come
song birds taking their directions from night stars,
geese tracking dramatic Vs across spring skies.
Air carries their migratory signals, their territorial claims, their mating calls—
in these elaborate songs they lustily sing their survival.
Birds perch on hummocks, brave icy waterways, or congregate in tree tops,
in the slowly darkening farmlands they peck expectantly
at still-hardened ground and wander fields like hungry refugees.
each fragile body rehearsing ritual and expectation—
mastering the simple art of enduring.
After Paul Kelpe's Machinery (Abstract #2)
Kelpe hated figurative painting, but it was
good for business. So, the blended man
in the foreground pulls a lever as in an idea
about the worker's hands. Ask a poet
for a figurative painting and she'll say,
The workers’ hands, like bricks that hide the sun.
Someone is pulling the rope that makes
the figurative bell ring inside the Cathedral
of Learning. Wait, that's another painting.
They all look the same. Machine, steel, machine,
steel, machine. Shadowed men pulling.
Wait, that's reductive. One announcement goes,
When the smoke stacks are smokeless, the factory
is closed until further notice. Someone has polished
the façade of the Cathedral of Learning;
already, the imitation Ionian columns
in the background have been scrubbed
into an industrial forgetfulness; already,
April has wrangled the leaves back into
foliage formation; artist’s hands
have become bankrupt abstractions.
One announcement goes, My job is to defend
the human condition—dream of machines
without the steam. Viewers, debtors, miners
of the semiprecious, I went to the museum
to see the past reflected in the new century’s glass.
The director, in his hard hat, on his golf cart,
toured the most photogenic floors. Viewers,
debtors, morticians of the creative act,
the asbestos in the workers’ lungs lasted
as long as the autopsy. The director,
in his hard hat, commissioned another
mural. Kelpe detested murals, but they were
good for business. There is a figure in the foreground.
Behind that figure, another worker, another
mineshaft, landfill, sinkhole. Once, I think,
Kelpe must’ve loved the idea of the workers
striking, the clean Bauhaus geometry of their
raised fists. Once, I think, he must’ve loved
a little less, the triangulation of men returning
to the factory floor and turning the lights on again,
even though nothing much had changed.
Cross Road—Still Life
Oil on Canvas, ca. 1933–1934
On May 9, 1934, the worst dust storm in history
roared across the country, 1,500 miles long,
900 miles wide and two miles high.
Not what I see in the painting, but what I hear,
a crossroad sign twisting on a listing pole,
rattling, this way, no, that,
the loaf-shaped door of a mailbox
screaking back and forth on it's hinge,
the gurgle of icy well-water sluicing into a trough,
a hum of barbed wire, the whistle
of wet wind over the lip of an empty milk can,
everything sheened with sound,
the tinny light of a wished-for Spring.
And what I feel is outside the frame, the charge
of electric hooks reaching down,
calloused fingers sparking with static,
on the horizon, a black blizzard,
dead fields gathered up into 12 million pounds
of dust, lungs flannelled with red Oklahoma snow,
sand-blistered legs, bodies hammered thin
and bitter by a mean sun, glitter-stung eyes
from staring too long into emptiness.
And what stirs in me is the deep knowing
of our bodies. Inside the weather,
shaped by it, edged with it, wind-scoured
hardpan in the set of our shoulders, hunger
in the lingering taste of thistle and lightning
on our tongues, the wind-robbed
skipped breath on waking afraid in the night.
We know how fragile this season of plenty.
Sometimes already the wheel of stars
creaks with rust. Sometimes already
dark clouds smudge the light of a waterless moon.
A response to the exhibition 1934: A New Deal for Artists
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear. . . .
This winter I hear America still shoveling snow at the empty
ship yard, sky gray, river gray, and asphalt beneath that snow
gray as they say our minds are, just as I hear wind wailing
along the rural route, collecting in mail boxes at the end
of a farm driveway, no cattle in those fields, no trucks coming
over the hill for a long time now, because I hear America
milling around on the train platform, blowing on its fingers
in the bitter cold, at the same time as I hear kids yelping
in the park, light as blown leaves but somehow here to stay,
America's Future, they're called by pastor and politician alike,
but they're just kids, wayward, innocent and cruel as wind,
the cold or sweltering wind, first snow blowing on the mountains
already, and everywhere in the valley the growl of engines
struggling to start. . . . Those kids now ninety, ninety-five
nodding over their yogurt at the nursing home.
Yes, I hear America sighing as it cuts radishes, shovels coal,
slices meat and cheese, climbs into the delivery van—
lucky to have work, even grinding labor, fortunate
to grunt and toil and howl like gears in need of oil,
many of us turning finally, after a half century or more,
to metal or dust. So no one has to ask what factory or shop—
it's obvious, you are the work, bent permanently to it,
whether you feed paper to great rollers or plunge the plow blade
into yielding earth, whether you lather up the face
of a neighbor for his shave, jackhammer money
out of the face of a mountain, or bend over ten hours a day
picking cotton. You're a replacement part, sturdy and available,
and in the natural order of things you'll send sons, daughters
into the flames after you, and that'll be their coughing I hear
as I stand at the locked gate waiting, as all do, for the plant doors
to open again, for the stacks to belch smoke, all of us listening
for the sound of America getting back to work again.
Yes, what America says is Get to work, everyone. If you can't
pick up a shovel, don't care to chop ice, heave hay bales,
or feed long logs to the screaming saw blades, if no one
will hire you for your lofty thoughts or excellent intentions,
then at least you can hold the cracked mirror high, and higher,
telling America again of its own moods and motions,
yes, you can represent that girl and her slack teddy bear,
that farmer paused with lit cigarette, drowsy clerk
on the subway, and laundry hung like a thousand flags
from all the tenement balconies.
You can be America, America, by being no one and everyone
at once, rocking the baby in Los Angeles, feeding
the Goliath of a paper plant in Glens Falls, even finishing
that cathedral of learning that will never be finished, whether
in Pittsburgh or a better place. Look also to the rich—why not?—
in their ongoing comforts, sleek yachts heeling hard in Sunday’s race,
sails bellying, you cannot help noting, like the stomachs of the poor
with nothing but wind. Is anything more American than wind
restless between buildings, pushing old newspapers along
the gutter, moving down the dusty highways?
Yet if I hear wind moaning, it's not that lonesome train,
not the promise of better days, but rather "Goin' to Heaven
on a Mule," don't you know, for how else would you ride?
It's "Honeysuckle Rose" if it's anything at all, not to mention
"Bugle Call Rag," "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," "Moonglow,"
and "Miss Otis Regrets." It's "Winter Wonderland," "St. Louis Blues,"
"Love in Bloom," and lord yes, it's "Easy Come, Easy Go."
And just out of the frame, unshown but not forgotten, suave
and insinuating as wind itself, I hear Duke Ellington, who loves
all America madly, playing his lazy fox trot called—what else?—
"Rude Interlude." And so we shall be rude together, one and all,
rich in our laziness and song as much as our endless labor.
after The Farmer’s Kitchen
Ivan Albright, 1934
Old woman, you’re tethered to a chair
sitting among busy prints and tired geometrics,
your apron a different calico than your dress
with its red cherries anchored in a sea of blue
while wallpaper bouquets drift in pink,
the weight pulling you into the mire
of work and worry. What are you thinking
as you trim a fist full of radishes, your knotted
knuckles red and gripping bowl and knife?
My grandmother measured her days by chores:
Monday—sheets push-pulled through tubs
and wringers. Friday—twenty pounds of flour
beaten and stretched into bread,
the endless days between. Here you sit,
queen of your realm, something caught
in the pale of your eyes and repeated—
a memory of an old love or an old promise.
You are somehow grateful for today, the blue
granite bowl filling in your lap, the warmth
of the stove, soft light, your kitchen reign—thankful
the Lord still has something useful for you to do.
1934: A New Deal for Artist
Chazen Museum of Art
Hold still, Ms. Lightning—
Can’t you hear me, see me trying:
And it’s this blade I ride on,
Can’t you feel the hammer whine: It’s you—
It’s you. It’s, you. It’s this train I ride
On, the bull trills from the mouth
Of the mine. It’s where the rail
has written your name. The quarry’s teeth
Are set in my spine. It’s you—
It’s you. It’s, you. It’s right here, Ms. Lightning—
Beneath the smokestacks’
Lilt and sway, the ruddy angles held at bay,
The docks swelling to shadow at five,
The punk stokes a boiler to flame. It’s you—
It’s you. It’s, you. It’s this train I ride on:
The hills burn with an ochre clay,
The mill stutters against my hand,
The lumber slips like a broken man,
I keep wanting a distance to claim,
What sweeps, then barrels, and falters
again: It’s you. It’s you. It’s, you.
—after Howlin’ Wolf
In game five of the 1956 World Series Don Larson pitched
the only perfect game ever in post season play: no Dodger
player reached first base.
Perfect: don’t say it.
Don’t think it, you’ll jinx it.
It’s the top of the ninth first pitch:
Berra’s catching, Larson throws,
Furillo fouls again.
He takes a ball,
fouls, fouls a forth time, flies to right:
there’s one away.
Larson looks to first, steps
off the mound, steps back, bends down
and palming the resin bag he swipes the rubber
with his cleats, leans toward home
Campy grounds to second:
Don’t say it though.
Don’t think it, only look at the stands,
just look at these fans in their suits and brimmed hats,
all these fans in their tee-shirts and jeans:
even the beer sign over the bleachers
seems just right, the trees adorned
in gold,a cool breeze out of the east.
Larson rubs the ball, steps off
the mound, steps on again.
Dale Mitchel’s up.
Larson won’t be rushed, adjusts
his cap. Adjusts his cap. Adjusts his cap
and throws: ball one.
And he throws again. Called strike
and throws: strike two and Larson, big
Don Larson palms the resin bag
and looks to third—he won’t be hurried.
You know what’s about to be:
don’t think it, strike three.
Pilfered from porches
during graveyard shifts
while cashiers rang up
thermoses of coffee,
while parents after non-stop
fell exhausted into bed
having forgotten one detail:
to bring in the mail.
Hence, stealth lifted flaps, slid
envelopes to pouches,
snipped front yards at the diagonal
in a reverse delivery.
Picture half-a-ton when piled
on a mattress!
Big as helicopter rubble
after a mid-air collision
or an outhouse tilted over,
a whale’s testicle?
Consider the miles that faith tread water
as a daughter dared believe
her birthday would be remembered
by a father despite his forge
of a new family.
And the angle of sag
in a student’s bony shoulders
after he banked on an acceptance
from a university;
a lonely new neighbor without
her invite to a potluck;
a feud not averted
due to a brother’s apology;
a wedding that didn’t happen
for no valentine was received.
Imagine the stain of suspicion
from the unmade tuition payment,
court proceeding unattended,
And where to weigh the curses
heaped upon the postal service?
All those suntanned messengers
in their sturdy polished shoes
shouldering the blame despite
diligent the arrival, ever-ready
the smile, how jaunty
that striped jeep.
after Jacob Getter Smith’s Snow Shovellers
& Earl Richardson’s Employment of Negros in Agriculture
1. my uncle say there was no depression
in his house, it was black as any Tuesday
pig’s feet, well water & swole ankles all the same
says history pause when white folks get sad
or told no, but his mama still had washing to do
elbow deep in sweat & soiled draws
before she could worry about her sheets
that his daddy, all 230 lbs. of cracked mortar,
could still be someone’s boy, anyone’s monkey
came home ready for a drink, cupped the glass
same as a axe & couldn’t no white man
tell the difference between his flesh & dirt
my Uncle lied his daddy down in Mississippi
mud color of fathers, lied him down, turned
around & had to call that boy who called him nigger
2. whose deal it be/who stir the soup/who work the field/who shovel the slush/who
treated the same/whose deal it be/who vote/who elected/who well feed/who crashed
the market/who high enough to fall/who new to poor/who woke up different/who
born that way/whose deal it be/who can’t whistle/without losing lips/who ornament
the tree/who wet nurse/the baby that grow up & spit/who can’t say shit/who
separate/who far from equal/who crow love the best/who built the nation/who
barely above the dogs/whose deal it be/who signed it/
3. I wanted to talk about how pretty
the water color, how perfect the machine,
how ready the work, how hard the worker
how great the nation, how great how grand
how God has blessed the dust, the light, the sea
to cloudy diamond sea
but how? when black boy shotin back in Brooklyn
when Emmitt, when Chicago still to this day
when black bodies chime the wind
when concrete is ruby brick at dawn
when the world still looks at my body
& shutters, hides the good china
4. when you see the law-maker, be it God
or president or alderman or big mama
tell them we got a bargain to make
tell them to bring paper
I’ll bring the knives
colors in the day or night,
sparkle in the women’s skirt
fire up the atmosphere
multi flocked dress,
one delicate shoe rests.
What time is it?
to the front
fills the void,
halo from behind
cab hurtling towards the sun.
Two women talk,
ring hand hidden,
eyes eager shy
beneath the hat
sit close, tell secrets,
tales about men,
love and romance.
S curve couples on the left.
The man leans in
on the compact
a sneak peak
the heated glance
a stranger makes
who is lonely
a young pretty girl
on the tram,
alone and hatless;
in need of protection
to reflect her beauty back;
dreams between strangers
who never know
what affect they have.
But eyes don’t lie
they tell stories untold,
predicament of those
those lucky enough
His say to her, pretty lady, look at me.
Behind them a couple
with clothes to match
but not skin tones,
share a newspaper
they lean in
read the fine print
they aren’t afraid
to share space
S curve grace
an inch away
they are comfortable
her eyes shine black.
Across the way
resting his eyes
between gigs or home,
with a tiny ‘stache
holds his violin
with a bow tie,
shiny black shoes
and suit to match,
reflects the hues
of the car’s purple glow
casts him in this timeless role.
You can tell class by clothes in this painting.
Next to him, several inches away
a man with slanted eyes
and sturdy work clothes
reads a magazine,
there is no tiredness here,
though tired bones hold strength,
sits on the edge of his seat
young man, blue shirt
ready for whatever comes next,
his sideburns reach
beseech like his long fingers.
into her ear
they aren’t wearing
hats in this scene
his arm around her
he holds her close,
only they exist
they almost kiss,
her hair shines
back at him,
her face glows,
the woman standing
holding the pole,
closes her eyes
to look, listen or know
but every part of her is tense
from the effort of not looking.
There is looking in not looking.
Even with lids closed
the eyes reach out
from the picture
I am, I was,
I did once exist,
and this is proof
of my existence.
They say don’t forget
about me or us
or my sacrifices
and this is where
we come together
best in mass transit,
the worst off, the best off
the working girl,
the country bloke
the men in hats and suits,
the women who know,
the men who don’t,
here we meet, greet,
and saunter though time
and space together
read the paper, rest,
all shades, pay grades
it makes sense,
here we are equal,
see what beauty
we can make
when all is lit up with color
warm and welcoming,
into the picture,
offering you a seat.
Poem in response to Lily Furedi’s painting entitled Subway, circa 1934, “Their eyes are so alive.” (Author’s note from the visit and first viewing it on February 21, 2013)
You could see it from the run-down, cold-water flat
on Ash Street.
You could see it from the bridge across Newtown Creek
where people strolled in the evening,
the oil slicks on the water iridescent in the twilight.
You could see it from the roof of the house
on Clay Street—
the craggy, towered skyline of New York—
the whole of Manhattan surrounded by water
like a moat around a castle.
Along the Brooklyn waterfront at Greenpoint,
where English was a foreign language
and only Polish was spoken,
and where everyone’s father was a stevedore, brick layer,
you watched the rats tightrope along the dock lines
between ship and shore
the same way cars made their way across the bridges.
Hot summer nights, people dragged their mattresses
out to the fire escapes to sleep—
hundreds of people stacked one on top of the other
in the metal cage-work of ladders and platforms
ascending to the sky,
sleeping under the stars—only you couldn’t see the stars
because of the glare of the city,
the dazzling skyline across the river,
the bridges with their necklaces of lights.
The night the chemical plant exploded,
people frantically dragged their mattresses
out of the buildings,
their life savings hidden away
where by now every thief knew to look.
You took your flour sack doll,
your only dress,
held your sister’s hand and watched the flames
lick at the underside of clouds,
the skyline across the river like a remote Oz
where a lonely wizard, great and powerful,
might grant you brains or a heart