Nude Descending a Staircase (Number 2), 1919

By Timothy Leach

Nude Descending A Staircase, No. 2, 1919

Nude Descending A Staircase, No. 2, 1919
(Oil on canvas by Marcel Duchamp)

“…the modern age is about becoming, not being.”

— Nietzsche

With precision and alacrity, aloof as machinery, 
                         she shucked past selves like shrimp shells, 
                                                      as down time’s squared steps she came, 
                                                                                               less and less of her left,
exoskeletons stripped,  shed skins stepped from 
                         to become her handmaidens of shadow and echo, 
                                                               blurs in the slow eye of open exposure
a wake of streamlines, a printed wind, 
                                                                  no frame able 
                                                                                        to cage her cutting edge. 

Robed in a raison d’être of perpetual motion,
                                strip tease a la tart was no part of her art.
                                                              No virtuoso of contrapposto, 
                                                                                  she never stood still for still life.

Her moves didn’t square with Parisian Cubists, 
                                  so she made her debut spot-lit 
                                           descending with the brassy Broadway drama 
                                                                                          of a New Year’s countdown.
The belle of ballistics,
                        lit fuse on a status quo about to blow,
                                    accident-in-waiting at the 1919 New York Armory Show.

A femme fatale, she might as well 
               have thrown  herself from the gallery wall 
                           like a Molotov cocktail, exploding smug notions 
                                                       of blue-bloods, glamorati and first-nighters. 

Ironic, metallic, electric, eclectic, 
              a disembodied disappointment,
                  not the fleshy temptress who gallery glitterati came for— 
                                                                         no supine Venus; no silken glove
                                                                                                love could slip easily into.

Bedridden prime rib is what they wanted; 
                          spoiled dove oiled by Titian, Ingres or Manet, 
                                                  rendered in full frontal verisimilitude, 
                                                                               given the eye and then the brush. 

Instead, quick as cards shuffle, 
               she splintered and merged, 
                                 a sepia chimera shifting through 
                                                                         ochre, sienna and burnt umber— 
Her pigmenter, creator, publicist, lover
                                               Marcel Duchamp, 
                                                    left her hanging, left painting too, creating 
                                                           instead the ‘ready-mades’ that made his name. 

With change as the oil in her flesh tones,  
           she never was now for long, always getting a move on, 
                                                                      on her way — ahead of herself 
                                                                                                   with ambulance urgency.
Kaleidoscopic, pyrotechnic, manic, she’s still
                   a shape-shifting siren of the age of change, 
                                                still moving those who woo her, 
 			                                                    during visiting hours, at 
                                                                                 the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
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About Timothy Leach

Timothy Leach spent 35 years in journalism, advertising, and public relations, then taught as an adjunct instructor for five years, semi-retired, at local universities and community colleges while writing poetry. His work has appeared in more than 25 literary journals including The Atlanta Review, Natural Bridge, The Evansville Review, Sou'Wester, New York Quarterly (pending), Southern Poetry Review, Potomac Review, Big Muddy, Epicenter, Willard & Maple, Tulane Review. Two times finalist in both the annual River Styx and the New Letters poetry competitions, runner-up in the 2007-08 New Millennium Writings competition. Winner of 2008 University of Missouri-St. Louis MFA poetry competition. First book, Icarus Flees the Garden of Earthly Delights to be published by WordTech Communications in May, 2015. His work appears in several local and regional anthologies, most notably in two volume, award-winning war literature anthology, Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors.


  1. Claire
    Posted June 2014 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Breathtaking diction and attention to detail, enthralling–the movement captured in Duchamp’s dynamic painting is encapsulated in this phenomenal poem.

  2. Posted February 2017 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    It’s a brilliant poem.

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