Roberto Matta. Untitled. 1942. Crayon and pencil on paper, 19 × 24" (48.4 × 61.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. James Thrall Soby Bequest. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

For this year’s edition of our Poetry Project, we asked poet Ada Limón to select nine distinguished American poets to respond to artworks from the Museum’s collection.

Roberto Matta. Untitled. 1942

Roberto Matta. Untitled. 1942

–After Roberto Matta, Untitled, 1942

“Matta’s key ambition to represent and evoke the human psyche in visual form was filtered through the writings of Freud and the psychoanalytic view of the mind as a three-dimensional space: the ‘inscape’.”
–Claude Cernuschi

We come into the canyon as particles

Rocks striated nearly vertical with color

Through hills pressed up from beneath the crust

Past a checkpoint where we refused

Any answer to the question of our nationality

As much desert as always asks silence

A hawk sweeping the sky

My skin torn by the recurved thorns of a silver cactus

Blood meets canyon rock making us together

For music only the velocity of a fly’s wings and the wind rushing

Through the canyon as if a voice sounding

In waves flow rock and wind and the dark water of my body


This moon seen in shards

As in history we are denied a picture

Appears then a figure my interlock

What does the shattered perhaps assemble

How to reconcile how two bodies fit together

After all this time


Who spoke in breath to guide

In pines or stone among ghosts that chime

This time dear hand you held and

When the sun did moon we cross

The river a cloud cactus-pierced

You found


Should I reach through years departed

From my self unknowing

To another self

A car driving the long

Drive through knowledge but how

Do we know when marked and asked

I can not explain

We woal all answers because in ancient agony

One body lapped at the borders of another

With no other purpose but to give pleasure


Rain grime along the floral tile of canyon floor

Some kind of flower marked by scrap of sky

I silver-streaked fled through rivered cant

What I left behind I cannot thank

Far from home one learns

How to sea


A letter from wind came an interruption

Told two coasts of time between

That is as fragments always

Sounds out from history

The call to prayer

Whine and moan of the tuneless drift at the Sufi dargah

Slide guitar and Gullah holler


Our time in the inside year or was it a closed year or a closet year

Yet I lived into width offered by ocean

Spring to spring simultaneous

A California of time

And fever that passes in panes of white light

The sky brushed in pause

Stripes of heat the Chinook shook

Pricked I am slashed threaded


Without fate love does plunge

As light through a canopy of forest

Where wind is noticed in the shape of earth or icicle or twist of branch

Do you follow sound or light

Fault fluid flute flet falt

Which actually touches

And who without the written can speak

Who in vowels throw


How to reach back

Relive what was not fated but that happened and finished


From ice and time I grew but why

Born across borders

I sigh my name in the language of

That clear sound

Wind crime or ruin

I in the spaces between stake my claim

Yet heard a thread said

Could there be wind that sang

Swain lain in these years filled

I heard song wollen that swell

Water what him woolen we fae

Would weal fill feel fail


And lost in time time

Suspended suspiring there I swung

And swerve you then

Join me will you one to another fastened will you

Could you then swear or say sang slang along

Long I have been spire spur spoor poor pour

Lore lour lower lone lure

Why did you choose this work of art?
I’ve always been attracted to the zone between abstraction and representational—if I were to err it would be to the abstract. But the almost-becoming-real, as in Nicolas De Staël or Shahzia Sikander or Imran Qureishi. It’s why I prefer Georges Braque’s cubism to Pablo Picasso’s. In literature I look to Anaïs Nin, in dance to Kazuo Ohno. Something almost real that dissolves or something real that assembles itself out of (classical) chaos. “Preumbical eros preclassical brain,” as the poets Olga Broumas and T Begley put it.

Matta’s drawings—this particular one—demanded attention as bodies moved in space connected by countless threads. We, too, in kismet are bound, countless causal relationships manifesting themselves in the phenomenal world. In a scratched-out score of chords given to a friend, John Coltrane anticipated contemporary innovations in quantum theory. The brain is wider than the sky. Matta’s work maps an interrelationship between a person, an environment, an ecosystem, and the semiology with which they are each and all expressed.

What drew me to it was not its shapes but its energy. That’s always true, isn’t it? What makes an Agnes Martin painting, the grid? Or rather the hand that drew them, the field that pulses beyond. Not the shapes of things, as Lucille Clifton writes, moving past Plato, but “oh at last the things themselves.”

What was your approach to writing a poem about it?
Language, too, is a plastic medium. It only makes sense in sentences when we follow those rules of grammar, syntax, word order, even spelling. Other than that each word may have a meaning in a language but poetry allows one to undo it or to use the words themselves as material. My schooling on language came from Nin, sure, but Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Susan Howe, where (as Howe wrote) “the articulation of sound forms in time.”

So in the poem I begin somewhere ordinary: a desert hike into a canyon. I am torn by a cactus. I bleed, the day leads on. I wander and words wander too. Two words ward to word and one does wan want to wander or want water. One in language could move a movement that moreover roves over the room. When you look at Matta don’t your words turn to water or winter or wind or...?

I approached the poem. Approached and approached. The poem rapproche.

Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom and has lived transnationally in the United States, Canada, India, France, and the Middle East. His books encompass multiple genres, including several volumes of poetry, novels, and translations. He is currently a professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. His newest books are a volume of three long poems entitled The Voice of Sheila Chandra and a memoir of his Canadian childhood, Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water.