Among the Undressed, by Claudia Rankine

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after “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words” by Hortense Spillers

Stepping into the painting, backing up a moment
to its edge, any further we’d fall out of the picture,
we encounter her, Black woman, be she enslaved
or what. Of all the women here, she alone
dressed, in white and orange stripes,
partially draped, in full consciousness of her object—
the chaste goddess—yet and always still naked
in the structures of thought that fix us. We see her
clothing the chaste goddess, or, since we might as well
embrace the goddess’s outsized, mythic powers,
I would go so far as to say, we see her
shielding the metaphorically winged goddess,
who despite her proximate fleshy positioning
dominates in the crash between Gods and mortals.

 

 

We see her, be she enslaved or what, her own dress
slipping, rushed into service, her gaze caught
by Actaeon who stands before her caught in the myth.
Dear, dear Actaeon, you have stumbled into
that which you created, your pillaging glance.
You have stumbled (We must be careful here
not to understate the violence you are—
white and male.) stumbled
into the painted poem, lit from the left.
Try to see yourself, throw your reflection back
through the impoverishment of history.
Under these circumstances, given our circumstances,
Actaeon, whatever you might think of your coming state—
your bullish metamorphosis, stag—does not destroy
your authority, your potential power to come furiously,
it is after all your dogs who ultimately destroy you.

 

 

Whether we are addressing you, Actaeon, or not,
the goddess knows. She knows. And as clearly as anyone
before, or since, the Black woman, be she enslaved or what,
sees. She sees, has seen, has learned, has lived
our collective history of being raped whether we are
approached by you, Actaeon, or not.
Between the goddess and her nymphs, bathing
in the sacred grotto, lives the premise of chastity
even as the nymphs flirt in their eloquent poses.
I do not doubt that we must have refinement
(or is it confinement?) in the picture at the same time
that we recognize that history that history
has made peace with. This classical
representation, the displacement of a vagina
by a face, remains living as far as we,
the Black woman, be she enslaved or what, can see.

 

 

And is it that only one face reflects back to us what
a human being is not? In X-rays of the painting
layers of light reveal that the Black woman, be she enslaved
or what, naked or otherwise, was originally not in the picture,
but rather arrived as a substitute shade onto the body
of a white woman in an effort perhaps to normalize
unthinkable acts, unspeakable practices.
Why is the dog there at the feet of the Black woman,
be she enslaved or what? O Titian.
Titian. The women cannot truly merge, not even here
in your depiction of the moment of passage
between the human and the non-human world.
I don’t wish to be unfair, I am interested primarily in,
in, in life, living, barely registered, rarely measured,
regarding the Black woman, be she enslaved or what,
be she X-rayed or not. I believe that you who see
understand what I am describing, as certain dynamics are
by no means limited to Titian’s 16c rendering.
I do not think I exaggerate the living conditions
out of which our being becomes our seeing.

 

 

All this nakedness stuns in its ritual repetition of loss,
loss of control over beauty, our bodies—
all this nakedness. Under these conditions of seeing,
the fact that the Black woman, be I enslaved
or what, is dressed undresses me.
The fact that Titian addresses me does not
redress me. The painting draws from what
violence Titian allowed himself to see,
thus fating us all to be seen, seeing. See?
It is no use trying to remove
the violence of the painting, no use
trying to disprove it is what it is. It is.
But I give you this, given the violence insinuates
itself quite differently depending on who, who sees,
Go, and say what you have seen, if you can.

 is a poet, essayist, and playwright. Her most recent book is Just Us: An American Conversation.



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