-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.