Dirt

-The Wellcome Collection, London

 

Just after Wierex etched a toddler Christ

sweeping, then dusting a believer’s heart—one angel

keeping watch with a clean-up bucket—

de Hooch and his countrymen painted courtyards,

each with its scrub brush and kneeling maid,

her bulbous forehead catching a dab of bone-white

as she churned toward a doorstep and grimy hearth,

in her wake, bricks and bricks and bricks

shedding their fringe of grout moss.  In with purity,

a placard read, out with sin—although fever entered freely

and someone devoted was always exiting,

portable microscope under an arm, to scrape batter

from a dog’s tooth or papillae from oxen tongues.

In with virtue, out with decay.  Then in with decay,

a broth of mold, a dose of microbial fermentation.

In with anti, out with septic.

Out with miasma

in with the breeze that Wierex blew on etching ink

and Hume on human nature and Darwin on cowslip dust.

Four rooms beyond the believer’s heart—the exhibition

is Dirt, the sweep, five centuries—

past Lister wards and rows of anti-cholera suits,

each with a little hand-held tree, an artist

has crafted bricks. Not far from a tin-glazed,

scripted platter–“You & i art Earth”—just

a stone’s throw away from “Purity and Danger” and a spray

of photosynthesis, stacked against the final wall:

hand-made bricks: Dirt’s end, it seems.  And art’s.

These simple shapes began, the signage said, when clay

and vacuum met, then swelled with samplings

that, over time, had drifted through the latitudes,

the epochs and uprisings and isms, to one smattering

of receptacles.  From the Royal Albert Hall,

bone, orangutan hair (pigeon down from the bellow’s room;

from the loading bay, a leaf).  From the sub-basements

of Blythe House, dust, lint, chipped prosthetics.

From Shaftsbury Theatre’s forty-five hundred

upholstered chairs, moth debris

and the celadon gleam of pistachios.

 

 

Linda Bierds is the author of nine volumes of poetry, most recently Roget’s Illusion, and appears regularly in The Atlantic. She has won several major awards and grants including the Guggenheim and the “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Issue #35 May 2014
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