Jack’s Naughty Bits: Alegria

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Jack's Naughty Bits
Many years ago, in a used bookstore in Providence, I came across a tiny little volume of poetry called Instructions for Undressing the Human Race. I was intrigued by the title, of course, but had never heard of the poet, Fernando Alegria, nor had I yet become the miner of naughty bits that I am today. But one element ensured that I buy the weird little tome: it was illustrated by Matta. Matta, the Chilean painter whose canvas X Space and the Ego arrested me the first time I saw it in the Museum of Modern Art, and so terrified and entranced me that I stood looking at it for over a half an hour.


Flipping through the pages of Undressing, I was similarly disturbed. The drawings were true to the Matta I had seen before: bodies made of disengaged genitalia and weaponry fuckmurdering each other, a chaos of limbs, enigmatic figures and other surreal, scary images — perhaps altogether too much like the id on parade. Alegria’s poems that accompanied them were not dissimilar. They suggested removing policemen’s boots with the feet still in them and burning firemen in their own flames; there were instructions for undressing your best friend’s wife (quickly!); for denuding archangels and the Earth, the artist, the Statue of Liberty, the dictator and Death. Not every poem was so gruesome — some, including the ones i’ve highlighted below, had an abiding lyricism — but overall I had had never read anything that was supposed to be sexy and yet was so irremediably violent. The book scared me, and I put it on my uppermost shelf, out of reach.


Now, more than a decade later, I’ve taken it down again, hoping it will shed light on the vexing question of the unrepressed libido. What does desire desire? What are the contours of the id? If you have occasion to visit New York, go to MoMA and see Matta’s take; for the time being, however, read these poems by Alegria and see if they help lift the superego’s skirts.


From Instructions for Undressing the Human Race by Fernando Alegria
Translated by Matthew Zion and Lennart Bruce


Undress the nun wholly
But respect that white-winged coif during her moon-flight
And the celestial habit will fall away slowly
And the body shoot out like a trembling finger
Sad and feverish.
Wait for her on your knees
Then she will be a capsized goblet bleeding on the beach.


Undress the Buddhist monk of his flames
Cover him with a red parasol
Anoint his dark face with oil
Perfume his thighs with the breath of a maiden
Wrap his body in silk neckties
Break open pomegranates on his lips
Squeeze a dove on top of his head
Don’t perturb him; love him from afar
Allow him to flare up
Like a match between the fingers of God.