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Beckmann Variations & Other Poems


--Abst├╝rzender (Falling Man), 1950

It is great to fall, it will be important if I plunge
this way, as it would not be great to be entangled.

But if I plunge head down, feet clear and don't catch
on a building ledge, I will swoop past the structure

blazing in flames on my right, go past the open window
to my left where one sees some compact of love, violent

and contorted, is acted out. I admit, it is great to fall, great
not to fear snagging on the buildings to the right or to the left,

wonderful to fall free from clouds swirled in turbulence,
passing toward the blue of the sea where a small boat sails,

where gulls fly like avenging angels, and the momentous inevitable
wheel of life and death has a benign dusty shine. I am going down,

dropping toward the cannibal plants, the cacti and venus fly-traps,
unnameable greens and jaundiced yellows. Down.

BECKMANN'S ABST├ťRZENDER (FALLING MAN) (1950) struck me as an image of pathos, suffused with the knowledge that an artist's work is a noticing rather than an action that can promise immediate results. This painting, among Beckmann's very last and so appearing near the end of the exhibition we had walked through, boded both dread and hope. This was my impression at least, on the day we crossed back over the bridge together to London's north side. We were unusually silent, and did not really converse again until we had boarded one of those cheery red No. 5 buses heading toward Angel.

Fallen Man. It was hard to shake the image. Beckmann's prescience or my own deeply lodged psychic imprints revived in my mind the photos from September 11th, 2001, of people who had flung themselves downward from the World Trade Center towers. And only two years after we saw the Beckmanns, young men on a suicide mission, possibly in the name of religion, exploded bombs in the London Underground on the very day we were flying from New York to Heathrow to visit our friends in Islington. They told us that one bomber had blown himself up on the No. 30 bus, the one we had often taken that wound its way down into the heart of Bloomsbury. These events drove my thoughts violently back to our trip to the Tate. They reminded me that 17th century St. Paul's and the 21st century Beckmann exhibition both contain paintings of spiritual significance, that both display religious-seeming triptychs, art works which had made our walk over the bridge ironically an arc across the human condition. And in our war- and atrocity-ridden time, the journey seemed entirely one way, towards Beckmann.