Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Art Talk (Poem)

Ben Steele, The Bataan Death March, c. 1950
Oil on Panel, 30" x 48"
Museum of Montana Art Permanent Collection
Gift of Ben and Shirley Steele
© Ben Steele

Art Talk

I was awful sick and I thought I was going crazy. . . so I
        started to draw on the floor. ~ Ben Steele

A charred pointed stick,
        a hunk of filched coal

make their impressions
        on bare concrete floor.

Later, it's what hidden
        paper will absorb:

your mind letting you think
        you've bought the farm

by letting you dream up
        tall booted cowboys, big

sky, Montana mountains,
        more than anything else

the taste of food denied.
        No one checked columns

for what ailed you —
        dysentery, pneumonia,

malaria, blood poisoning,
        beriberi — you got it all,

and last rites, too, twice,
        as you longed to go home.

Some people ask me how
        I can draw that stuff, but

it's very easy. Not like you
        marching on Bataan, feet

blistering, bloating faces
        in all the roadside bays

the night's visions as you fall
        in for another sixty miles.

© 2011 Maureen E. Doallas

The image above is from an exhibition earlier this year at the Montana Museum of Art, "War Torn: The Art of Ben Steele - Paintings and Drawings from the Bataan Death March", comprising 68 drawings and paintings by World War II veteran and Montana artist Ben Steele. Looking at the images and reading of Steele's experiences as a prisoner of Japan during World War II (Steele says art helped him survive the Death March), I was moved to try to write a poem. The italicized words are Steele's own.

Prisoner of War: Ben Steele's Personal Chronicle from Bataan to Hiroshima (Images of some of Steele's artworks are accessible here.)

Website for Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (Ben Steele is among those interviewed for the book.)

J.C. Lexow, "Artist Found Inspiration in POW Camp", DU Today (University of Denver), May 26, 2011

Joe Nickell, "Exhibit of Ben Steele Artwork Opens at UM Museum", Billings Gazette, September 23, 2011

Joe Nickell, "Museum Acquires Ben Steele Art Collection", Billings Gazette, September 24, 2010

"The Memorial of the Mind", The New York Times, May 25, 2009; also see: Michael Norman and Ben Steele, "The Memorial of the Mind", The New York Times Opinion, May 24, 2009

"War Torn: The Art of Ben Steele", Art Works Blog, November 10, 2011


Louise Gallagher said...

and I am grateful you were moved to write a poem on Steel's painting and story.

Powerful words made deeper by all the links you share casting light on Steele and his talent.


Hannah Stephenson said...

Incredible and horrible. Thank you for sharing this.