This photo, black-and-white, where Mapplethorpe
portrays his dark-mopped ex in profile, seated
nude on wooden floorboards, knees drawn up
against her breasts to hide her nipples, heated
by the sideways radiator pipes
on which she rests her palms, her bulging ribs
a set of parallel oblique gray stripes
rippling her bare white skin, unsmiling lips
a short flat line–
these were my first parameters,
my inspirations, when I learned to write.
On Patti’s ribs, the wooden flooring’s planks,
the stacked pale pipes, I modeled my pentameters.
The aim: amid such sharp lines, to be frank
and raw, yet still control what sees the light.
Jenna Le writes: “I first became intrigued by the friendship and creative partnership of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe some years ago. I confess the personas of these two artists and the touted relationship between them interests me even more than either artists’ actual creative output. Based on what I have read in biographies and so forth, their friendship seems to me to represent an ideal: a dyadic connection characterized by remarkable intensity, an intimacy transcending sex and conventional relationship definitions, facilitating both parties’ creative flourishing. As one gets older and it becomes ever harder to form new meaningful adult friendships, such bonds seem to me ever more mythic and miraculous. I think this awe, this wistfulness, is the principal emotion that makes me keep returning to the photograph this ekphrastic poem is about.”
Jenna Le (jennalewriting.com) is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Indolent Books, 2017), and Manatee Lagoon (Acre Books, 2022). She won Poetry By The Sea’s inaugural sonnet competition. Her poems appear in AGNI, Pleiades, Verse Daily, West Branch, and elsewhere. She works as a physician in New York City.
Photo: Robert Mapplethorpe’s sole full nude portrait of Patti Smith, taken at his Bond Street Studio, 1978 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery