Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Thoughts on Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2)"


Marcel Duchamp, 1912
Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2)
Philadelphia Museum of Art 
A Rose is a Rose is a (No.2) Rose

She comes from nowhere,
gains speed dead center
with so much commotion
we worry about a crash
about cubes and cones
that might shatter and splinter
and we are relieved
when she arrives, five steps later
when a heel checks the body
causing her pelvis to lift, her
spine to jerk. Whiplash implied.
Her shoulders screech backwards
into the figure before, into
the self of but a split second prior.

That is the whole story.
Charge down the steps.
At the bottom, dig in heels.
Rush to stop to show
shadows and facets, the harsh angles
of id. Perpetual motion, she is
humanity stumbling, rushing
headlong into WWI. Or not.
Maybe her dissembling self
is mere metaphor, imploring
time itself to stop and us to smell
the roses down the street
in Gertrude’s drawing room.


Problems Posed by (No.2)

When is a pose is no longer a pose?
How much to or fro till it’s a pantomime?
Does imminent danger make a picture moving?
Does hard work make it lurid?

How many times did (No. 2) descend before Duchamp deemed the work complete?
Did (No.1) not make the cut?
Did she run the steps endlessly or stand each one separately?
What about those hard, swollen gams in the middle frame?
Do you feel sorry for the model?

Was communication between them politically correct?
Did she know she was being artistically abused?
Was (No. 2) hurrying to a different atelier, to a real artist, seeking respect?
Can she hear war in the offing, eardrum-shattering canons to come?
Was she the first person forced to run steps for a living?


Look Again (No.2)

Dulled yellows, flat browns
unexciting greys on beige
imbed (No.2) into
a splintered stairwell, an
impoverished pallet
of late afternoon when artists
view a canvas through
the nose of a glass
of beer or cognac
and the work bricks up.
The time of day when
honest painters rip pastels
from the sky like Band-Aids
from a wound, allowing
the human condition
to step outside for a good cry,
when even a Monet splash of
fragrant light is useless
against the onslaught
of the unknowable.

We move with her
because we too are in a rush
also painted in impoverished
colors and dissembling
for the world to see, racing our
expectations and apprehensive.
Having hardly succeeded in
descending five shallow steps,
we see how well expressed she is,
how historically normal it is
to jerk backwards,
dig in those heels,
to fear a hidden pit,
the trap door releasing
into loneliness
at the end of the day.


Originally from Philadelphia, Jacalyn Carley moved to Berlin shortly after graduating from university and spent 20 years as a modern dancer. She has published four books—two novels and two nonfiction books—in German translation only. Her poems and short stories have appeared in Silver Birch Press, Mississippi Review, NPR Berlin, and local Berlin expat journals. She is currently working on a collection of poems, The Drawing Room, that deal with the nude in the studio, in painting, and some who are stubbornly incognito. Carley directs Sarah Lawrence College's Summer Arts in Berlin program, and also donates time to help refugees in Berlin. Read more at jacalyn-carley.com.

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