White Numbers and Jasper Johns

May 15, 2017


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.








Please reload

Featured Posts

Moby Dick and Drowning Girl

October 20, 2017

Please reload

Recent Posts

October 5, 2017

September 23, 2017

September 21, 2017

September 20, 2017

Please reload