On Thursday, January 19, 2017, Museum visitors will have the unique opportunity to hear poets read alongside the art in the exhibition From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art at Generation to Generation, Poet to Poet, an event in Koshland Gallery. The works on view explore many forms of memory, offering powerful narratives open to a wide range of interpretation and expression. Below are contributions from several of the Bay Area-based poets who will read their work. These voices generate spaces in which past and present experiences—a variety of forms of memory, reflection, and observation—merge in concrete image, direct address, narrative, and a striking range of emotional registers.
Nguyen Do, whose thirteen books include The Empty Space and New Darkness (Vietnamese Association Writers, 1991, 2009), shares a poem written in response to the relocation of his father, a Viet Minh anti-colonialist soldier, after the Geneva Conference in 1954. Gail Newman, a child of Polish Holocaust survivors who was born in a displaced persons' camp in Lansberg, Germany, provides a personal and poignant reflection on the violence of war. Poet and teacher Cintia Santana shares an alliterative epistolary lyric poem, while Cave Canem and VONA fellow James Cagney’s visceral narrative poem “Bakersfield” speaks of “memories of heat.” Brynn Saito, author of Power Made Us Swoon (2016), reminds readers of “the slow light of progress.” Each poem allows for further consideration of From Generation to Generation’s theme of inherited memory.
by Nguyen Do
the two apple trees we planted last summer are busy bearing fruit now
the way aspens bear their shadows
this evening I’m relaxing in my own garden, sipping beer
but my heart is suddenly wounded:
you’re no longer here to distinguish sun from rain
just as we were leaving you, you suddenly woke up
the vagueness of your voice came from the deep endlessness
of thirty years ago:
“you should be leaving me soon for less heat”
tears came quickly into our eyes
now, daddy, I’m sitting here in your shade!
at this moment it’s like taking the first step in writing a poem
on an evening when the barges are whistling
where the porters—mom, dad, and my village neighbors—
were bending their backs to carry the goods
raising kids who’re like corn and cassavas, struggling to grow up
parents are like the La River, streaming their whole lives
then finally drained of the last drop, the last twist
sometimes I touch the arecas in our old garden home
their bodies of a thousand wrinkles, asking me
if I want also to talk to tangerines and soursops
wanting badly to do so but then having nothing to say. . .
here on this summer morning, birds sing and squabble for their food
I thought somebody called, I woke up
these days I’m so scared by any phone’s ring
and the moonlight is like the moon that night my dad rafted
on the La River, his charcoal face soaring in the moon’s yellow light
as, in extreme misery, he floated his family home from the forest
on the bamboo raft they lived on.
his country and his own fate were divided in half
the summer moon flat and thoughtful
I once visited a country cemetery with you in the Lao wind pouring heat
but I was trembling with cold when we passed my grandparents’ graves
you pointed to two empty grave plots next to them
you said you bought them to prepare for your own death and mom’s
you talked easily as you put more rice in our little clay pot
making a tiny bowl of congee in that long winter of starvation
in our country
dad, you still look after us, even though your fate’s boat has forever gone
into the horizon
Oakley Jun 10-11, 2014
After the Geneva Conference of 1954, my father, a Viet Minh anti-colonial soldier against the French, had to relocate north of the 17th Parallel even though he was born in the southern province of Quang Tri, where his mother and siblings still resided. Thus, for 21 years, until 1975, his heart was divided in half.
The wind that comes from Laos into central Vietnam. Called a “Lao wind,” it is very hot and humid in summer.
by James Cagney
Aunt Pearl's grass appears painted,
each blade perfectly ripe, bleeding
if pinched between your fingernails.
Her dog, named Rat by a granddaughter
for obvious reasons, darts a stray mark
of ink across the lawn. He stops at his water
dish, a snow globe of sand, to slap
down the liquid. From a distance,
he appears to be a curly black wig,
his tongue a perfect orange slice.
The heat is a curse in Bakersfield;
worrisome and mischievous as a mad
fly, even coaxing my mother into
shorts. It is a heat that hugs you,
sticks and burns. It is a heat that
settles over you like ash and is cured
only by watermelon and lemon popsicles.
Night comes slowly as if the sky
were being peeled in long strips
of blue banana skin. One at a time
the stars remove their shirts
revealing their random white bodies;
tiny stones littering a beach of black
sand. In the cooling darkness,
the sidewalks surrender tortured
memories of heat and mimic hot coals.
Uncle Jerry sits on the cement porch.
The sky above him ripens to a deep
plum color as he unscrews a story
from a bottle and moths dance
their suicidal dance for the flickering
porch light which, at this moment,
is brighter and hotter than the sun.
by Brynn Saito
Woman Warrior is thinking about justice.
The moon out
and climbing the sky
reminding her of the slow light of progress.
Clocks line the banks of the frozen river.
They conduct time
tall and ticking while the river salutes the mystery
of ice. She skates across it
with a jar of honey
stacked on another jar of honey
stacked on another.
One hundred years later
and still she is skating, descended from the dark
river of women—women loving men
men loving bottled love
love like a cradle of needles—
mending, mending, mending.
by Gail Newman
War. The man face down in the snow is my father.
Chest, legs, body as if asleep in snow. He hears the silent
woods, the slight shiver of ice forming on branches.
The cry of a crow, crunch of boots, artillery fire, moans.
Ally planes overhead, crush of metal, shouts.
He imagines his mother lies down beside him, smoothes
his hair. The trees turn over and sigh, sleepers or lovers
arms twined around one another for comfort.
Something in the world must love him.
Must want him alive-his hands, the soles of his feet,
the veins in his neck, the roots of his hair.
He wants to live so he feigns death. For three days
unmoving in the snow, his bones brittle as hatred,
so cold he could break.
by Cintia Santana
Never the bride.
Never been better.
Nor best. A burden
is nothing like a bird.
become a boy.
A boy become a bomb.
Let bygones be.
Let bygones be.
is but borrowed,
And the body betrays
because you be:
the black in the berry.
the bumble in the bee.
Bless the bean.
Bless the butter
and the cup.
James Cagney is a poet and writer from Oakland, CA. A Cave Canem and VONA fellow, Cagney has appeared as a featured poet and artist at venues in San Francisco, Vancouver, Chicago, and Mumbai.
Nguyen Do's thirteen books include: The Empty Space and New Darkness (Vietnamese Association Writers, 1991, 2009); with Paul Hoover, he edited and translated the Vietnamese poetry anthology Black Dog, Black Night (Milkweed, 2008), and Nguyen Trai’s poetry in Beyond the Court Gate (Counterpath, 2010). He received a Poetry Foundation's grant (2005).
Gail Newman, a child of Polish Holocaust survivors, was born in a displaced persons' camp in Lansberg, Germany. She lives in San Francisco where she works as a Museum educator for The CJM and as a poet-teacher for California Poets in the Schools. Her poems have appeared in Ghosts of the Holocaust, Prairie Schooner, Calyx, and PRISM. A collection, One World, was published in 2011.
Brynn Saito is the author of two books of poetry, Power Made Us Swoon (2016) and The Palace of Contemplating Departure (2013), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award from Red Hen Press and a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. Originally from Fresno, CA, Saito lives in Los Altos and teaches and works in San Francisco.
Cintia Santana’s work has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, Pleiades, RHINO, Spillway, The Threepenny Review, and other journals. She teaches poetry and fiction workshops in Spanish, as well as literary translation courses, at Stanford University. Santana is the recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Djerassi Resident Artist Program.
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From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Lead sponsorship is provided by the Koret Foundation and Gaia Fund. Major sponsorship is provided by Dorothy R. Saxe and Wendy and Richard Yanowitch. Patron sponsorship is provided by Shana Nelson Middler and David Middler and by Anita and Ronald Wornick. Supporting sponsorship is provided in honor of Ellen Kahn. Additional support is provided by Rosanne and Al Levitt and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibition program is supported by a grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.