Thomas Schütte. Untitled from United Enemies, A Play in Ten Scenes. 1994. Offset lithograph with ink additions from a portfolio of 10 offset lithographs, eight with ink additions; composition: 25 3/16 × 37 1/4" (63.9 × 94.6 cm); sheet: 27 1/16 × 38 3/4" (68.8 × 98.4 cm). Yves Gevaert Éditeur, Brussels. Photogravure Steurs, Antwerp. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Prints and Illustrated Books Fund. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

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. Here, Jose Olivarez shares his poem inspired by Thomas Schütte’s untitled lithograph from the series United Enemies, A Play in Ten Scenes.

Thomas Schütte. Untitled from United Enemies, A Play in Ten Scenes. 1994

Thomas Schütte. Untitled from United Enemies, A Play in Ten Scenes. 1994

after Thomas Schütte

those ramen noodle days, it wasn’t noodles
that kept me alive. those microwave days,
i clung to my hunger. hunger like clay—

i molded it. hunger, you might imagine,
in the style of rappers. but what i shaped
wasn’t made in the image of riches.

that american dream died in the home
my parents lost to foreclosure. its corpse
is still rotting in my old bedroom

underneath the posters of Biggie.
the hunger that fed me crawled
through the block in a lemon-yellow Benz.

what’s dead returns & always uglier.
the hunger i fed skimmed the grease
off my soup. it survived on the salt

of my seasoning packets. twin of my ugliest truth:
that what i wanted more than gold on my chest,
more than i wanted my loved ones to live

without rent or debt hanging over their necks—
what i wanted more than anything (god, forgive
my ugliness) was to shove boiling-hot bowls

of instant noodles down the throats of the rich.
     those ramen noodle days, i ate with two mouths—
my rage slurping happily what my belly wouldn’t touch.

José Olivarez

José Olivarez

Why did you choose this work of art?
I chose it because it called to me. The figures have a particular ugliness to them that struck me as honest.

What was your approach to writing a poem about it?
In writing the poem, I wanted to mirror some of what I saw in the image of the two figures by Thomas Schütte. The figures are bound together. Something about them led me to writing about a moment when an unexpected companion provided motivation.

José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants. His debut book of poems, Citizen Illegal, was a finalist for the PEN/ Jean Stein Award and a winner of the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize. It was named a top book of 2018 by The Adroit Journal, NPR, and the New York Public Library. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he co-edited the poetry anthology The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT.