after several photos of gum and street debris by Irving Penn
and a little James Wright
This one’s an odalisque,
Nude, elbowed, armed like a Matisse
In the quiet modern wing,
And found, in chewed gum
Discarded on a street, under our feet, gum
Hardened, a creamy marble.
In the middle of our own lives
We wake and find ourselves
Dying, aggregate, friable.
How a box of matches can look
Like a bunker or edge of a thickly
Grotesque perhaps that old gum
Can become antiquity’s luscious
Backside. Few witnesses
To this out-of-the-way display.
Gum old-crackled like porcelain
The seamed heart beside the lollipop stick
Silver foil and shoelace
Much howl and gravel
Screaming man with fissures
The coast a brain scan stuck strand of hair
Tire tread the ultrasound
Each organ breathes in its god
And we are reminded
— from the wet mouth —
Gum wrapped by a child like a ring
Around a finger —
Woman with crossed arms, an alabaster built up from gum. Behind her, the towering cumulus mass backlit — as in Titian. She looks over her shoulder: clouds in billowing layers of Monroe-skirt thunderhead pinned by something like the stem-end of a lemon, that star. Gum, how you bunch, gather in, make classical your folds and shock with a tender Pieta—.
Man with a bolt for a face, hexagon bolt
For a heart,
Flaking, degrading to the edge
Of his little world.
Cardboard match for a walking stick, epaulet swell
Of industrial paper towel.
We always see a body, a face, man
In the moon.
Somewhere at an intersection, what’s dropped
Will stand out — shine — like 40-weight
Oil spot or tar-gem.
No other way to see it —
One zigzag ear, one eye,
Whole nose mouth —
That apparatus — gone.
Heart bent out of rebar,
Heart illuminated, bestiaried
Streetlit along a tarred
What shall we do if what’s missing comes down
The cross street alone,
Strolls up shining out of the grate
To make once more his request of these curbs,
Lamps, scrap and the many alleyways for whistling in,
Takes the rest for his own once more, his own
Pigeon feathers, the Camel pack flattened,
The old circus poster—
Stubbed cigarette butts
Arranged, upended to become
The draped row of kore arrayed at an entrance
To a temple
Or near a storm drain.
Every day all of it
Delicacy of the wire lo mein
Handle, a cardboard’s scoring
A filth, what’s spread out to see —
Paper cup, reminder, flat glove —
There is a treasure here, a treasure
Of what we have not loved.
Irving Penn (the photographer at the center of the poem) was born in New Jersey and was a student at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, now the University of the Arts. Although best known for his commercial photographs, an exhibit of his fine art photography was held a few years ago at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
photo credit: Robin Hiteshew