Gustav Vigeland’s Sculpture Garden, 1965
Vigeland’s subject was the nude, what we are
without the trappings without the social uniform.
Atop the garden’s 56-foot-tall central monolith,
composed entirely of bodies, pressing and pushing,
grasping and clutching, the strong mothers and fathers
lift their children skyward toward the sun
—sheer drive combined with animal nature.
The whole, interlocking, jumble looks like
it wants to lift off, then perhaps suddenly wheel
and shift direction, like a flock of birds in flight
—Dante’s damned in the ante-hell this side
of the river Acheron—those who died without
infamy or praise, those condemned to fill the air
chasing one blank banner or another.
The smooth, muscular bodies led some to suggest
he was inspired by Nazi art—racial purity
cast along a naïve, bulked-up, neo-classical line,
but the prone bodies at the base of the monolith
make me think otherwise—the barest hint
of a tremendous weight pressing down upon them.
Of course, such a monolith of bodies
could never stand as he has shaped it.
Installed at the height of the war,
his vision was muted, but still uncanny.
His bodies are a prescient rhyme
to the naked dead in concentric circles
around dropped cans of zyklon b—
the weak and infirm nearest the emptied center,
then, mothers clutching small children,
and finally the outer ring filled with
the strongest men who clawed their way furthest
in the panic to escape the poison,
in the reflexive drive to fill their lungs with air.
Anonymous has left a third message.
“Are you Chinese, Japanese or dang Viet-nese?”
“If you was born here, you’re an American,
but you know what, if you weren’t you better
go back where you belong. Right now!”
“I’ve seen your family.” He describes,
crudely, how he’ll rape my daughter, wife,
mother and grandmother, then whoops,
“Long live the South!” and hangs up.
The police take the information.
I should change my phone greeting,
nod to our national progress and chalk up
three calls to a lone, ignorant nutcase.
Trickle of water pulled upwards
to a jewelweed’s delicate yellow petals,
xylem and phloem, swelling plant cells,
botanical hydraulics, life-giving flow—
I stare at the wetland beyond my garden
and wait for a tightness in my stomach to let go.
Pussy willows, early budding, wild and overgrown,
assert themselves amid clumps of green
and bring to mind thickets on river islands
along the Chenango in New York,
my setting for boyhood daydreams of escape.
I’ve read the local histories—
Lincklaen’s land survey, arrivals by oxcart,
first cabins rolled up, stagecoach inns,
Wilson and Smith felling trees, cutting a road
from Cazenovia to Pharsalia, sawmills and distilleries,
boys grinding hemlock bark for Sam Hall’s tannery,
the pack peddler buried under a front porch,
Shippey’s trading post at Whitestore—harness leathers,
tobacco, coal oil, calico, boots and plows,
tavern brawls of canal men in Brisben,
god-fearing farmers taking cows to pasture,
the Loomis Gang in Nine Mile Swamp,
the railroad, hard times, Norwich hobo jungle,
and my mother as a girl picking wild strawberries
to sell to city folk in lakefront cottages.
I try for solace in thoughts of Whitman’s democracy,
his open road and natural freedom.
In the sixties, I’m twelve, traveling alone,
train-bound for Binghamton. In the club car
of the Phoebe Snow, I drink Seven-Up
and eat potato chips from a thick, heavy bowl
brought by a black waiter. I can almost
sense how his smile and deference
are forced upon him. I’m awkward and over polite.
Clapboard siding and brick facades
of Pennsylvania towns vanish behind us.
The conductor checks and punches tickets.
He calls out long-forgotten stations.
On a curve, I catch the maroon and silver
Erie Lackawanna diesel that pulls us.
I count cars. Water sparkles under the trestles.
In a few years, Arlo Guthrie will sing
The City of New Orleans, its repeated refrain
asking America to recognize his nativity.
A freight train shook my grandmother’s house
twice a week—17 South Delaware Square, Norwich.
The shrill metallic scrape of wheel on rail
returned subdued in the calm squeak
of her cast iron pump. She poured down
its throat from a bucket as I worked the handle
until the pump took, gurgled, and cool water rushed out.
She watered her garden. I picked raspberries
and studied the stump where she’d lop
the head off a hen on days my father came
to court my mother. She welcomed him. He never forgot.
During the depression, she found work
in a knitting mill—ten cents an hour,
ten hours a day—thirty years. Single mother
of three young girls, she feared hobos
and slept with a loaded pistol under her pillow
and loaded shotgun under the bed.
Her silver spoon won shooting clay pigeons
with her sportsman husband before he left her
hung on a nail over her stove:
Rose Belle Carpenter 1916
Passed down to me, her double-barreled
twenty gauge leans against my bedroom wall.
After the third call, I hesitated,
then bought shells—light load for an old gun.
Passed to me also, the small vest
sewn for my father seventy-three years ago—
blue pinstripes on white cotton,
deep inside pockets for his travel papers,
and a black cloth pouch, the size of a teabag,
tied with a red string for luck.
Chiu Gnor, his mother, filled it with sand
scooped from their village well.
She told him, “If American water
upsets your stomach, dip this in it to feel better.”
Twenty-nine years must pass
before they speak again, face to face.
Vancouver-bound, he steamed third class
on the Empress of Asia, crossed Canada by rail,
then steamed down the Atlantic on the Yarmouth
to Boston to be grilled under Chinese Exclusion.
Names of passengers flicker, flutter
before my eyes. Microfilm unreels. I stop
at August 4, 1936 and search for my father’s name:
Chin, Gwing Guey, Chinaman, my father,
has a name not worth recording, too hard to spell,
too alien, other, foreign, even now,
under the index finger
of my Southern caller tracing the listings,
finding my name, reaching for his phone.
Tendril, leaf and stem unfurl faster,
almost, than I can weed, stake and tie.
My cucumbers, squash, snow peas, tomatoes,
peppers and bok choy make a reply
my father would have understood.
“It’s ignorance” he’d say, hold back the rest
and have me work my garden.
Near summer’s end, at the wetland’s edge,
goldenrod shudders and bobs with bees.
I balance, steady and weigh. I don’t forget.
I dip my grandmother’s sand in American water and drink.
David Chin’s poems have appeared in various journals, anthologies, and in two collections, Chalked in Orange and The China Cupboard and the Coal Furnace. He’s the recipient of an Associated Writing Programs INTRO Award. Most recently he has completed work on My Chinese Name, a long work (500 pages in manuscript) of scholarly, creative non-fiction which addresses family history, mixed-race identity, and situated embodiment. He teaches creative writing, rhetoric, and literature at Penn State Wilkes-Barre.
Image Credit: Vigland sculptures in Frogner Park from Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage database. Public Domain.
Glad you posted the photo of the sculptures. Enhances my reading of the poem.
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