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.
—after Ana Mendieta’s Nile Born
I was so young I was the blood
still in my ears.
I was so small
I was small as a kitchen cabinet
& watched the adey at the window
on her knees, her back to me but
the palm of her one foot, brightdark—
with henna, human-shaped,
its shoulders & waist where the arch was,
then the plumpness of the lower part
atop five legs or little, reddish eggs.
Eyeless, it faced me, & was my company
waiting for my mother to get off work.
I cannot recall the adey’s face, her name,
but the smooth slope of netsela makes her
sometimes a snowcovered hill,
or a cloud I witness briefly.
/ / /
Three days have passed since I wrote:
“I cannot recall her face.”
I see her eyes now, wet, dark petals, her eyebrows barely there,
& on her forehead the green, fading cross,
the green of tears,
the green of flies.
I am a fly as you are a fly. Pollinating.
Maybe you already know this feeling?
To bristle with another so suddenly
you find her in the flower.
The memory or particle once her briefest part
catching like a fleck of rivergold in your hairs.
So there she is out of whom the flowers grow.
& there she is she is asleep inside the breaths
that fall like cloudlets from our mouths
onto each other’s shirts & shoes this day.
What part of us was a drop of rain, what part
a river filled with dark to wash the children in.
I am listening through Mendieta
for the schools of quiet,
the silences of silt, the quiet of some sentences
with their dark, green awnings shading the melons & combs.
The quiet of the adey’s foot studying me
is like the quiet of the window through which she listens,
so quiet she can sense her sons alive & sleeping somewhere
on the road to Khartoum. Maybe it is just a dream.
So shake the dream for what is real
of their crumbs & hair & dust.
Here, fly, take this. Carry this.
To see the poet’s original formatting, download the PDF.
Why did you choose this work of art?
I’ve never seen it in person, but I’m interested in the shape and line it makes and the way that it carries the other works of Mandieta’s. It feels like it’s both humming and not humming with the times she’s made that shape. The brownness of the body is a brownness I’m often thinking about: the ways that our bodies are of the earth and the beauty of the brownness of the earth, which was a beauty that I had to return to in my twenties. I’m drawn to these questions of what the markings of that shape can conjure. I’m interested in the invitation to think about the shape and never arrive at one way of thinking about the work.
What was your approach to writing a poem about it?
I tried so many ways. I spent a lot of time with the image—both in front of me and imagining how it might exist in a room of people. Whatever felt like it was a resonant source as I catalogued the things that came to mind thinking about it, I just kind of knocked on those images. It felt very image-driven. I read what I could find about her and kept track of the repetitions I heard. From there, I asked questions based on those patterns.
Aracelis Girmay is the author of the poetry collections Teeth, Kingdom Animalia, and the black maria. She is currently the writer-in-residence at Pratt Institute’s MFA program and is on the editorial board of the African Poetry Book Fund.