I was out in the cold with the baby.
Driven from the house by his sick sisters,
We’d gone to find something to do.
National Geographic was between exhibits
So we walked down to the White House
Against a cold, damp wind.
Which explains why I ended up at the Renwick
With a two-year old.
On the first floor
Was an exhibit of art
By Japanese Americans interred at camps
After Pearl Harbor.
Delicate paintings of desolate camps
against stark mountains.
How could they have made such beautiful images
Of a camp they had been forced to live in without cause?
Small, polished wooden birds
Painted lifelike from pictures in National Geographic magazines
They’d requested at the camp.
The birds looked as if they would nestle in your hand
Smooth and warm, talismans.
Two large wooden cranes danced together with long, smooth necks
And long, smooth legs and plump bodies that showed the natural roughness of the wood.
There was a long, curved stick with a snake’s head carved into one end
And a snake’s rattle into the other.
There were wooden dressers, a foot or so high, with polished wooden panels
Made from different types of wood scraps collected from around the camp.
Dolls with beautiful clothes, a train, a boat.
The pieces were beautiful, stunningly so.
Many of the things I liked the most were created by farmers
Who, according to the accompanying materials, returned to farming when they were released.
I wish I could have looked harder, stayed longer, seen more
But as I said, I was accompanied by a two year old
Who started to shriek
Until I let him tackle the Renwick’s long, imposing staircase to the second floor.
I went back a week or so later without him,
But the exhibit was gone. I’d caught it right before it left.
That’s my life these days—such findings outside of my daily routine
Are like the flashes of a town seen from a train and then gone again
As the train continues past the usual thin screeds of forest.
But enough about me.
These artists had been forced into internment camps by the U.S. government, forcibly removed from their homes and lives. In some cases families had been separated–
the mother and children sent to one camp, the father to another.
The victims of such injustice
Created beauty while they were interred.
They must have worked on these pieces day after day,
Imagining them, collecting materials, working with what they had
And with what they imagined.
I can have no excuse not to do the same.