In His Photograph of Spencer Tracy

Irving Penn captures the wariness
of a man cornered, at war with himself.
His wide-lapel suit almost askew,

hair prematurely gray, elbow hiked up
& a fist-clenched hand covering his mouth.
His eyes make you worry for him. Maybe

you’ve heard about his photographic memory,
his gift for friendship. He liked the company
of men: Pat O'Brien, Cagney, Frank McHugh,

John Ford & Bogart, but how he struggled
guilt-ridden, about the nerve-deafness of
his son, believing God had punished him

for some mortal sin. He & his wife Louise,
studies in sublimation. Unsettling to imagine
the man of conscience: Judgment at Nuremberg,

Bad Day at Black Rock, Inherit the Wind,
looped outside a brothel on Sunset Boulevard,
or hospitalized after a week-long bender.

There were the affairs with Loretta Young
even Ingrid Bergman, then the long & loving
je ne sais quoi with Katherine Hepburn.

That probably saved his life. Still, a moody guy.
The Irish in him? He could play anything:
Priest, murderer, mountain climber, politician,

fisherman, Clarence Darrow, father of the bride.
‘Greatest actor of his time’: Artless, understated.
You never catch him acting.

back to issue