Poetic Meditations in an Emergency

Untold Passage considers the expressive, unquantifiable aspects of immigration.

No one leaves home unless home chases you. This line from Warsan Shire’s poem “Home,” on the forced departure of refugees, is what Emily Zimmerman nearly titled her exhibition Untold Passage. She first heard it among protests of the travel ban in January, around the time she started her position as the director of Jacob Lawrence Gallery. During and even before the recent executive order, Shire’s “Home” became a rallying call, written on protest signage, recited at political-action conferences, even tweeted by politicians.

No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark/You only run for the border . . . /When you see the whole city running as well. “Seeing these lines everywhere,” Zimmerman says, “reminded me that in the face of the most inhumane and blatant abuses of power, what is brought forth as a counter-weapon is poetry.”

Struck by this operation of poetics, Zimmerman curated Untold Passage by enlisting artists and poets to “recover both the unwritten histories of immigrant communities” and express the “unquantifiable aspects of those experiences.” When over-sweeping laws render people nameless and flattened by the label of their origin countries, poetry seems defiantly personal. The show features artists Zhi Lin, Mary Ann Peters, Rodrigo Valenzuela, and collaborative duo x y x. The poets are affiliated with local poetry imprints: Stacey Tran and Becky Win from Gramma Poetry Press, Ocean Vuong and Javier Zamora from Copper Canyon Press. The interplay of visual art and poetry is fluid and seamless, as many of the works contain ranges of visual, literary, historical, and personal sources.

The show could fly under your radar. The Jake Gallery is wedged within the labyrinthine UW campus, and Untold Passage itself is understated. Most of the art is light—white paper, soft pencil etchings—making the show seem sparse. Unlike other outlets of information about immigration, its messages aren’t flashy or hyperbolic; the text isn’t manipulatively tinged with a sense of emergency, in the way of some headlines. The show reveals itself slowly in exchange for your attention to the work and its sources. The value of attention, I find, is one of Untold Passage’s greatest lessons.

In an interview with The Creative Independent, Vuong notes that “I thought, ‘Well if the Greek root for ‘poet’ is ‘creator,’ then to remember is to create, and, therefore, to remember is to be a poet.’ Everyone’s a poet, as long as they remember.” Many works in Untold Passage function as the preservation of memory or as the recuperation of lost histories. Stacey Tran and Becky Win’s piece, Here, Fruit Falls from the Tree and Rots, contains an oral history of Win’s father’s emigration from Vietnam to Hawaii. The audio recording is presented in three parts, alongside embroidery of his words in silk thread on silk organza. The gossamer fabric elegantly drapes the wall, a material embodiment of Win’s father’s words.

Zhi Lin’s work, On November 3rd along Pacific Avenue in Tacoma (work in progress) is a reconstruction of a forgotten history, the expulsion of immigrant Chinese railroad workers from Tacoma in 1885. In the 27-foot drawing, Lin depicts, in meticulous, exacting detail, the workers in the urban landscape of present-day Tacoma. Lin spent years researching documents of life in Tacoma in 1885, and retraced the path by which the Chinese were pushed out on Pacific Avenue. Lin takes up the methods of a historian, to the point of moving a bridge an inch in the drawing to reflect its accurate placement on a map. Yet Lin also attempts to embed political commentary in this otherwise seemingly straightforward process by drawing the characters a bit larger than according to the rules of perspective. By taking this liberty, Lin seems to ask if historical narratives can contain the magnitude of its characters.

Rodrigo Valenzuela, “Meditations on Land” (2013). HD Video. Courtesy of Jacob Lawrence Gallery

As a show, Untold Passage asks: What happens when we take memory into our own hands and mouths? One artist who investigates this, Mary Ann Peters, was researching immigrant histories in archives in France, herself informed by ancestry from Syria and Lebanon. A large piece with white ink on black clapboard, titled this trembling turf (echo), displays a seismic reading of a golf course in Beirut, commonly believed to contain unmarked Palestinian graves. This trembling turf (echo)’s appearance of water is a gesture toward the tumult and terror of sea travel; the piece, Zimmerman tells me, is hung lower than eye level to give the viewer the sense that they’re sinking.

Vuong’s poem, “Immigrant Haibun,” applied on the wall in vinyl letters, begins with a quote by poet Edmond Jabès: “The road that leads me to you is safe even when it runs into oceans.” To think of immigration is to think of the sea. The sea is expansive with meaning, of the choppy distance of indeterminate travel, the unknowable magnitude of all swallowed by its depths, just as the frantic abandonment of home will scatter behind belongings and relationships. The sea is evoked in another piece of Peters’, imposible monument (tell tale), of a sail, sounding leads once used to measure oceanic depth, and bits of rescue blankets.

To think about immigration is to also think of land, of native and foreign soil, of the troubled notions of homeland. In the video piece Meditations on Land (2013), Valenzuela, buried waist-deep in dirt, beats and sifts the earth with his hands, raising a haze of dust around him, eliciting the tensions between a person and the land that carves out their personhood. The common motifs of land and sea unite these individual narratives into a larger story, unbound to a particular place or time—of migrations and exiles, of existence and survival.

What’s the point of poetry? I’ve been vexed by this question all my life, and certainly in the past year, as our political systems and news outlets absorbed us in a whirlpool of constant alarm. What is the point, critics demand, of all this art, in the face of malicious laws that operate in a completely different language? Peters, in an interview with Prairie Underground, answers: “I [use] the entry of beauty, which is always the great seductress for ideas that are complicated. Beauty can let people’s guards down.” Can beauty carry an ugly message? Can poetry, like Marshallese poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner’s unforgettable recitation of her poem at the 2014 UN Climate Summit, force policymakers to confront the people their actions impact?

But even when language isn’t a technique to defend our humanity, Untold Passage argues that this work of memory is defiant even when we are the only audience. If home is where there’s safety, perhaps home is located less in a place than in a feeling. Perhaps in these acts of observation—writing poetry, embroidering an oral history, or sketching a lost moment—we create for ourselves, however small and momentary, senses of home.

Untold Passage, Jacob Lawrence Gallery, E Stevens Way NE #132, jacoblawrencegallery.hotglue.me. Free. Ends Aug 18.


This story has been edited to more accurately reflect the process undertaken by Mary Ann Peters.