“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 Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama Press), Any One Man (Bottom Dog Books), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine Press), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House Press). A new book, Walking with Eve in the Loved City, has been selected by Billy Collins as a finalist for the 2018 Miller Williams Poetry Prize and will be publlshed in the spring of 2018 by the University of Arkansas Press. Work from that collection has appeared in Shenandoah, Pleiades, Rattle, Blackbird, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.

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