Detail view of Cy Twombly. Untitled. 1954. Gouache, wax crayon, and colored pencil on paper, 19 × 24 7/8" (48.3 × 63.2 cm). The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection Gift (by exchange). Given in honor of Kathy Fuld. © 2019 Cy Twombly Foundation

On the Occasion Of

Frenzied birds inspire Ross Gay’s poem about Cy Twombly’s 1954 drawing, Untitled
Ross Gay December 17, 2019

For this Poetry Project, we asked Robin Coste Lewis, the poet laureate of Los Angeles, to invite a group of poets to contribute an original poem written in response to a work of art in MoMA’s collection. In addition to hearing these poems read by their authors and reading about their creation on Magazine, you can listen to them in front of the chosen artwork as a part of our new Poetry Audio Tour of the collection galleries.

Cy Twombly. Untitled. 1954
Cy Twombly. Untitled. 1954

On the Occasion Of
—After Cy Twombly’s Untitled

The raucous cacaphone the
featherfrocked clattertraps
hollering Wake up
flowerface! Flowerface,
wake up!
the cat made
hungry by the symphonic
hullabaloo from the
amphitheater of black
walnut and redbud and
flimsy maple just outside
our bedroom window
follows me to the toilet
puts her paw claws
withdrawn on my shin while
I’m shitting as if to say are
you ok
as if to say are you
hearing this
the honey
locust next door meanwhile
hocking her wares you can
batterfry the flowers for
uncommon happiness and
cholesterol remediation
and the peonies in the
graveyard perfuming the
dead the great collective
crank tussling the sun up
tussling too the
dromedaries in my ear the
left one from slumber the
mule and mastodon too
crusty-eyed and mossy
stumbling into the dinghy
drove by the two doves let’s
call them pigeons cooing in
the eaves the sound of air
from the lungs from the
leaving.

Ross Gay. Photo: Natasha Komoda
Ross Gay. Photo: Natasha Komoda

Why did you choose this work of art?

Partly, I chose this image because I love Cy Twombly’s work and I also love the kind of obviousness of the hand in the work. When I think of Twombly’s work, I think about the traces of the hand, the way that things get covered up and reemerge. The Untitled series, and this one, [have a] sort of nest-iness about them, which leads into the second part of the question.

What was your approach to writing a poem about it?

I put the image in my head, which is to say, I put the image in my body and I started listening for a poem. One morning I woke up and heard the most glorious bird racket, thunderously beautiful, shortly before the sun was going to come up. It was a completely rapturous ruckus that felt ordered and wild, and like some beauty I would spend my whole life gleefully trying to understand, which as it turns out describes Twombly’s work for me almost exactly.

Ross Gay is the author of three books of poetry: Against Which, Bringing the Shovel Down, and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was released by Algonquin Books in 2019.