Happy Birthday Jasper Johns! The artist is among my biggest influences.
His painting White Numbers, 1957, part of the permanent collection of MoMA, was the inspiration for a long poem of mine of the same name. Originally published in The Masthead, Volume 1, Issue 3, Summer 2006, the poem is a collage of biographical material and quotes from Jasper Johns' sketchbook notes.
It also includes meditations on the process of looking at the piece and considering the connections. Plus, I wanted to experiment with metrics in the vein of poet Dick Lourie which seemed appropriate for the form and shape of the numbers depicted.
My first draft was written in a workshop with Joanna Klink at The University of Montana. It was my first foray into long-long poems.
I've been Frankenstein's monster ever since.
Jasper Johns is everywhere in my work. He has informed the novel Art Official. Jasper Johns was also an inspiration for the book length manuscript Drowning Girl.
One of the few pieces of original contemporary art I own is a print by Shepard Fairey of Jasper Johns with the iconic target behind.
His imagery and influence are a huge part of my work.
Plus, I constantly quote the poem [Dear Jap] in my art and in my personal life. The poem by Frank O'Hara was written for Jasper Johns. You're sure to find an excerpt in "White Numbers."
Happy Birthday to Jasper Johns. Thank you for changing art.
"When I think of you in South Carolina I think of your foot in the sand."
And thank you for the inspiration.
-After Jasper Johns, 1957
Start, from nothing.
Snow from the sky above has long since stopped,
leaving a canvas of untouched white stretching
beneath. Sink, then rise, from beneath boots,
damp socks, colder toes, each delicate step
is counted— stenciled— in the tight bed sheet.
Merely walking paints these numbers, as if
they had some inherent concrete reality— indeed,
the very act of moving produces a steam of old ideas
being crushed. Here, where love and need are one,
labor is the risk. Soles, tread, curves, toes; one-two;
1-2; there are rounded hourglass figures left behind.
Take an object. Do something with it. Do something else.
Soles, tread, curves, toes; hourglass figures left behind.
To do something again is to do it differently. There are
shadows and sinking, depth; red and blue and green,
suggested. White is all the more painful after
two minutes— you notice agony, or sudden change,
try it for four. Still no relief. Then eight, then sixteen.
Thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it doesn’t
hurt at all. You continue, now, to walk. The searing
is relentless, and teaches you to love.
On a piece of lined graph paper, plot the following
points: The seasons— all of them— a map, cloud curves
in round thumbtacks, makeup you “borrowed”
from mimes, time it takes a closet hanger to murder
every shoe, window shades shut in sharp reaction
to ventriloquists’ gulps, stars on a flag— any flag,
your neighbor’s hallway light bulbs, money in morning
newspaper prints, x, y, newspaper smudges on loose
fingerprint marks, intensely sunny light in dense fog-mist,
the difference between these two things: following
a line involuntarily and following a line intentionally,
the fact that you control that which you do not control. If
you have connected all the coordinates
properly: repeat as needed.
Somewhere there are tight quarter bouncing bed sheets,
queen sized mattresses, four slippery-shiny posts,
cornered shadows in the walls, a television, remote
controlled cable box, recliner, place-matted table,
vinyl siding, (diving-boarded pool in the backyard),
manicured lawn, turned-over flower beds— edged
and seeded with lime, picket fence, sidewalk, crack-crack,
crack-crack, sticky black tar asphalt, Elm Street,
Ocean Estates, estates. Everywhere there are these
numbers on front doors, stamped letters in the
mailbox, crispy bills below, and in building’s
beds— repeating— repeating, oh, oh, (again!)
repeating. And in those building homes are towns,
shingles, shutters, windows, two car garages, where
the wooden blocks scattered in baby’s crib swagger
telephone lines. Collect birds, voices, winds, and call out,
shitting on boxy Volvo station wagon cruisers. Somewhere,
anywhere! Where, a number, a manifestation of 7—
the shape of the numeral, standing without a context,
as Cézanne may have painted seven apples— but,
latitude-longitude swinging, slanted map stripes,
cookie makers, geometry classrooms, heart attack
intersections, and folded plaid? What about
glossy photographs? and handy-dandy color tee-vees?
The just paint “7.” Maybe change the channel
to make a picture— Tonight at Eight on Channel 9:
Fred Numbers: A Portrait. His memory’s
remarkably specific. Jimmy Squares was in Paris
once when Numbers was there. I asked him
how he was liking Paris and he said
he wasn’t. Didn’t see him again for months
after that; he went back to the States, and I went
to the South. Then I saw him in a restaurant, and
I asked him how he found Paris. He stared off
into space, the way he does, and then he
slowly turned, and looked at me.
Do you at some strange distance
think of glass boxes full of weeds
and weeds filling boxes aromatically
and the strange distance between
each blade of the eye? Cold, and icy;
the homeless are on metal grates.
I’m wearing a wrinkled white linen suit,
but I don’t play chess, I don’t have the right
kind of head for it. Next to us, there’s a cube,
with two clocks, each a round ivory face,
numbers smiling around its center, hands
dangling from a pivot point, covering gaps
in teeth. I can’t think of all those possibilities
in advance. Instead, I’m playing solitaire chess.
It’s the same as boring old chess, only everybody plays
and no one moves. In fact, first person to move
loses. Push all the boards together, all the squares
together, like no-wax linoleum tile, and watch
a tight formation of playing pieces— horsies,
queens, bishops, and the like, sweating with anxious
speculation, marching in place in the sandy confines
of the desert. When marbled castles march,
when bricks are blurry lines and nothing else,
when in doubt, do nothing.
Candles sweat thick blobs of birthday cake
frosting, sending clear stream waterfalls
to mingle with the frothy ocean waves bubbling
over every coast of the perfect bay, swimming
on baby grand pianos. Waves, still and solid, carve
flickering light into ice skate tracks at dinnertime
sunset, and music. On the shore, around, are skipping
footprints, curving about rims and collected elsewhere,
when shoelace cords tangled with the cooling air
and trees murmur above taut strings
itching to explode; a cough, sweat rustling in headlined
newspaper folds, another cough, there is so much here,
that during John Cage’s piece, 4’33”, pianist
David Tudor sat at a piano without playing it—
the music consisted of sounds created in the environment
during that time. Your CD’s skipping, outside
eighteen wheeler flatbed trucks play bop, like
playing scrabble with the vowels missing—
and which is more musical, a truck passing
by a factory, or a truck passing by a music school?
This energy, this space, this song; bruised
and brushed-on sound and crevice, where movement
is measured in breath and wispy
floating ghosts, is where you’ll realize, an image,
any image— if prepared or found suggested, violated,
fallen, or redeemed, is not its color, form,
or anecdote, but reality; whose implications rush,
any of these parts— even when the air is stagnant,
the walls— crowded, and your memories are taken
as prescribed. Construct an artist’s studio, bathing
in porcelain sunlight, to make more music, more
careful, tragic, words, word-pictures. More nothing. A jetty
from your home with solid floorboards, thickly shellacked,
that paint, and notes, can’t stain. In fact, forget the walls,
and place large garage doors on every side, and replace
the wood panels with repeating panes of glass— each
separate shard, windowed picture’s possibility. Then
you can remove all barriers, press the boxy opener
from Sears, hear chugging grinds of motored chains
shaking each rib in you, and watch, as those checkerboarded
curtains rise and fall; disappear. The wind will be the in-between.
Map art creates an unknown world. In ordinary life
such drips might usually imply a mistake, or sloppy
indifference, but as the boundaries are blurred
in certain areas, the whole world will soon become
every man’s backyard: What do you consider the largest
sized map that would really be useful? About
six inches to the mile. Only six inches! We very soon
got six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards
to the mile, and then we actually made a map of the country,
scale of a mile to a mile. Have you used it much?
It has never been spread out, yet, the farmers
objected; they said it would shut out sunlight.
Somehow the snow has melted and the ground drains white.
There’s nothing here except a picture-music of the nothing
noise between us, that binds us, above us, as we are sealed,
shellacked, locked in tight to sleep at night in cribs and prisons;
cells, offices, houses, vinyl, chords, cords, and counting.
Cemetery plot caskets carry figures and march to seldom sounds.
The relationship is strengthened, but the stones remain
unyielding. Figures— I am one, you are two, and so on, and so on—
At a certain level, at a certain point in life, that becomes the game.
Identified with the man himself, it acquires a soul, and it moves
with all the subtleties which have been imbedded in him,
these numbers, eternal, while everything else is perishable.
Nothing’s solved finally, ever— moonlight, death,
religion, laughter, fear. People who once lived
in a bank, then converted it to a studio.
Here, money tallied and bound by elastics,
teller desks and bronze rectangled date announcements—
WELCOME. TODAY IS:________, ___, 20___;
today is an odometer, Norman Rockwell pinned
safe deposit boxes, vaults, the office of the President
and drawers of computer tallied savings books,
home mortgage/car payment slips, receipts,
repeats, and paper. ATM machine with a line
outside, while away velvety rope balustrades
guide a meandering maze of empty peopled lines.
Margerie is filing down her pinky nail
with a coarse board of emery, snaps her fourth
piece of gum this morning, now bland and colorless.
She had five or so beers last night and dreams
about quitting— next door, the paint store is the same.
It may or may not be chance and probability, but your chance
is not the same as my chance, the roads, the phones,
opening, closing, bricks, windows, doors, and multiplying,
3, 9, frames, forgetting— that picture of the dog
tugging at the freckled kid’s pants, all attempt
to enclose some compensation.