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.
An Afro-Cuban plea guards over heart
& head, that old rugged cross-tree
of the South in the tropical air of Cuba,
but it would take years in Madrid,
then Matisse, & a daily dreaming
of Paris before Wifredo Lam
painted himself in a floral kimono,
echoes of war tangled in his brushes,
before he could bring himself to half-see
those watchful polymorphic figures
in gouache on Kraft paper glued
to cloth canvas smooth as second skin.
He said, “When I am not asleep, I dream.”
The land grew whole by brushstrokes,
an uproar of growth pruned back
to vantage point, the first time I faced
The Jungle, big as a double door
to a secret realm. I close my eyes
to step into vegetable silence, living
designs triangulated, into a kingdom
of spirit totems in bamboo, sugarcane,
tobacco leaves, & double-headed limbo
growing one with the other, caught
in a love fever of three worlds, a path
to the other side, hidden from the sun,
relying on conjured light in a blue-green
season, pelting the ground with seeds.
Did the “W” in his name etch the first
winged symbol as indigenous signs
& masks rooted in black soil?
Breasts, buttocks, & terrestrial mouths
laugh in the greenery—we onlookers
see magic we cannot face in ourselves,
reasoned beyond our own mortality
enriching the wet-green profusion
wild within itself & what cries out,
seeped in ceremonial lamentation.
Tall figures hold sharpened shears
as if shaping footsteps out of foliage,
gazing into a future, these maroons
masked by zodiacs in their leafy hideout,
a rhythm of breathing architecture.
A slew of bluish incantations erupt
in carved silence, unwoven trance,
& these elongated, slantwise warriors
& seers, the other side, hidden from us
in daylight, interwoven & multiplied,
peer out of camouflaged revelation.
He drew questions out of shapes,
rooting shadows to the roaming mind,
& this makes me take another step.
Exiled, but not from his homeland,
orishas tiptoed back into CoBrA’s
inner sanctum. Vodun & Santeria
followed him to Marseille, still
orangery-red touches of Caribbean
sunlight on the skin of his figures.
Though once in a cabaret on La Rue Vavin
he heard “I put a spell on you,”
& a smile broke across his face.
Why did you choose this work of art?
I feel that Wifredo Lam’s wonderful and majestic surrealism has chosen me. I've been drawn to his work for at least three decades. I was first introduced to Lam by reading Aimé Césaire, and I must say I was taken by how the visions of the poet from Martinique and the painter from Cuba converge at times in unspoken dialogue. Matter of fact, a study for The Jungle, which is at the Art Institute of Chicago, appears on the cover of my book Pleasure Dome, published in 2001. Though we never met I daresay I know this artist, this man, what he was made of.
What was your approach to writing a poem about it?
I’ve written numerous tribute poems, which are mainly dedicated to black and indigenous musicians and artists. In fact, my Wishbone trilogy arises out of that needful place. I tend to ingest feelings, thoughts, and facts and then form and sound is given over to my imagination.
Yusef Komunyakaa’s Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New & Selected Poems is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. He teaches at New York University.
Wilfredo Lam’s The Jungle is currently on view in the fourth-floor collection galleries.