“José Clemente Orozco in New York”: Roy Bentley’s Poem about Political Art

Image of Gods of the Modern World, by Jose Clemente Orozco

José Clemente Orozco in New York

It’s like this, light spills at a time
and place, and we cheer it as beautiful.
We jaywalk crowded streets that bum-rush us
into pulse stutters of traffic, which we do not cheer.
Why doesn’t a candle-white building with the late sun
gilding it stay that way, gilded, the watcher wonders—
rain sheeting down but stopping so gladness can rise
into pastel clouds, a democratic republic of runoff
founding governments-in-exile in the storm drains.
All the biographers agree Orozco dressed oddly,
that he was distracted and talked loudly to himself
on the street where, walking Brooklyn, day or night,
he learned that, in America, faces of the hopeful
constantly turn away since seeing obligates the seer.
Crossing from Mexico that first time, border guards
seized 60 of his paintings, as if brown naked human beings
were not a proper subject matter or art itself was illegal
or there were two kinds of hearts in Gringoland.
In the years just after the Great Crash,
and working in the shadow of Diego Rivera,
Orozco painted Gods of the Modern World
where the bones of dead ideas like Democracy
give birth to—what else?—more dead ideas.
Orozco’s “birthing” occurs on a bed of books
in a room of robed men where skeletal fetuses
ask, Where is the hope in repeating their mistakes?
The artist has painted faces that aren’t turned away.
Slits for eyes. In Modern Migration of the Spirit
a piss-yellow Christ has descended the cross, afoot
and wild-eyed, and sporting an ax. Later, in Mexico,
he creates wall murals with tanks and dive bombers—
his way of reminding the Afflicted who’s to blame.
When he falls in love with an American ballerina
named Gloria, it’s because the heart that fails
and fails trumps that other heart any day.

Roy Bentley About Roy Bentley

Roy Bentley is the author of four books and several chapbooks. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Blackbird, Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, North American Review, and elsewhere, as well as the anthologies New Poetry from the Midwest and Every River on Earth. His collection of poems Nosferatu in Florida is currently in search of a publisher, having been a finalist for the New American Poetry Prize (twice), the Moon City Review Poetry Prize, the Gerald Cable Book Award, and the Anhinga Prize for Poetry. He has received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (in poetry) and fellowships from the arts councils of Ohio and Florida. He lives in Pataskala, Ohio.

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