an armless figure

pantoum power
“pantoum” POWER

Last Saturday, I experienced “a pinch yourself to make sure this isn’t a dream” moment.  The day was spent at the de Young Museum for an educator’s workshop with devorah major titled Shaping the Poem: Explorations with Visual Poetry in the Africa and Oceania Galleries.  Normally a completely booked workshop, it was just myself and another teacher.  My lucky day- no it wasn’t a full moon but St Patrick’s weekend in San Francisco.

devorah major (her first and last name are in lower case) is a creative genius and her resume backs that claim.  She was San Francisco Poet Laureate from 2002-2006, won numerous awards, performed with jazz musicians, writes, educates, and is currently the Poet-in-Residence at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.  According to the museum’s leaflet: “Using the de Young’s collections of African and Oceanic art, poet-teacher devorah major will help participants write poetry and develop strategies for linking poetry with visual and other literary arts.  Discussions will include increasing students’ facility with metaphor, using poetry to improve critical thinking skills, and bringing museum resources into the classroom…”

The day started in the de Young Museum’s tower with Ms. major sharing examples of visual poetry: words that make, create, or enhance art.  Then we were off to the African and Oceanic art collections where devorah read poems in front of specific pieces written by students and herself.  Next, I was told to pick a piece of art and write a pantoum.  According to devorah’s handout: “The pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century as a folk poem/song.  It is composed of quatrains (four line stanzas) and can be of varying lengths.  This is a modern circular form where every line is repeated twice.  The last stanza always returns to the first…”

An Armless Figure (imunu or kakame) made of mangrove root caught my eye:

an armless figure stands on two feet

textured by wrinkles, lines, holes mark history

an island roots, remains in gulfed by Papua

trapped in heavy glass unable to breathe


texture between wrinkles, lines, holes mark time

guarded by air, a vision suspended by wire

unable to breathe, trapped by heavy glass

flashing signals, filtered dreams, or faded memories


the air is policed by a vision

from the front, leaning to the left-

one faded memory, signal, dream, move west

casting side shadows across corners and borders


lean left-we move front- to the

an armless figure stands on two feet

shadow, crosses corners to borders, cast aside

inward by Papua’s bay, remains an island roots

No devorah above, but enjoy the journey of language: verbal, written, and visual.  As the day quickly started, it ended with a deeper appreciation of how written word is connected with the visual.  devorah major: “I think there’s this idea that you gotta be set right now, and I don’t think you have to be set right now.  I think what you do is you find something that excites you, and you do that and maybe it grows tangentially from that..”

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