A visitor entering the Berkeley Art Center gallery during the new exhibit “Red Rivers Run Through Us” needs a little time to figure out what the show is all about. Mostly made up of mounted poems and essays from the Veterans Writing Group, this writing-as-art with visual elements added is like a room-size magazine.
The Veterans Writing Group is just that – a group begun by Berkeley-based novelist and UC lecturer Maxine Hong Kingston that brings together Vietnam veterans to share their writing. It has since expanded beyond Vietnam veterans to include soldiers and widows and activists and nurses from all wars, including “gang war veterans.” The show expands past writing to Veterans who express their wars through art. The show runs through Aug. 11.
The hodge-podge collection of poems, essays, newspaper journalism, photography, sculpture, video documentary, and painting is held together by a central need to explore memory, exorcize nightmares, and take an emotional barometer reading of the long-term aftereffects of war.
The show’s centerpiece is a wall-sized, portable mural painting, “Nightwatch” (1999) by six Vietnam veterans who are not associated with the Veteran’s Writing Group. It’s a giant therapeutic experiment designed to diminish the men’s recurring nightmares. Project leader Susan Reid announced at the opening reception last Sunday afternoon that the mural was unsuccessful in ridding their nightmares. The different panels are amateurishly painted with jungle images and psychedelic abstractions of fear and isolation. Although it might also be unsuccessful as a piece of art it does not diminish the force of its intention, as it attempts to communicate wartime horror and honor a soldier’s anxiety.
Reid said the artists, who were not present at the reception, were initially hesitant to begin painting. But once they started, the images poured out of them. She also said the veterans were reluctant to show the mural in Berkeley, once a hotbed of antiwar activism that gave them a hostile welcome upon their return from Vietnam. Betsie Miller-Hursz, co-director of the mural project, said, “it’s a point of reconciliation for this to be here.”
A sense of atonement and support-group forgiveness pervades the show, best described in a moment of the documentary “Regret To Inform” (screening on a video monitor behind a partition in the back of the gallery) by Berkeley filmmaker Barbara Sonnenborg. The first-person documentary about Sonnenborg’s trip back to Vietnam to the death site of her first husband describes the surprise she discovered in her own attitude about the war. When her husband was drafted she knew he was in danger of being killed, but she hadn’t considered the fact that as a soldier he would probably do some of the killing.
Fear of dying is only part of the horror of war that these veterans and their loved ones remind us. The ability to look squarely at the former enemy without hatred, and look inside oneself without fear, is fodder for much of the show. The name of the show comes from Lee Swenson’s poem “Red River’s Run Through Us,” which muses on the global connections of war-scarred people. Swenson, who grew up near the Red River in Minnesota, met with a former Communist adversary who grew up near the Red River in Vietnam. Ann Marks’ short essay “I Was Never Arrested” describes her surprise at her own feeling of sympathy for the North Vietnamese during a trip to Vietnam. There she saw a Chinese woman suffering from crippled feet, which per Chinese custom had been forcefully bound to remain small.
Aside from the mural that dominates the middle of the room, the visual art on the walls shows a range of subjects, and even playfulness. Thirty nine miniature, mixed-media pictures by Tom Currie are scattered like buckshot along a wall. They are abstracts and portraits and sketches of war, Jesus, and rough interpretations of compositions vaguely remembered from classic paintings. Overheard, during the opening reception, Currie said he used “every technique imaginable.”
The writing on the walls also runs a range of topics, some tangentially related to war, some not at all. “A World Without Latkes” is a short essay written for a food magazine in which author Robert Gollinger Jr. discovers a recipe for latkes through a stranger on an airplane who was also a fellow war survivor. Dennis Fritzinger’s “Charlie Don’t Surf” fashions the famous “Apocalypse Now” line into a story-poem about a supernatural surfing challenge, a la Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down To Georgia” (“He said, ‘I’m Uncle Ho, and I’ve come to see/ If you Yank surfers are as good as me.’”).
More serious poetry, in both tone and craft, comes in several pieces by Dorothy Langlois, who writes about being raised Catholic and wearing deep-pocket choir robes. She writes one poem about shuffling in a retirement home, and another about stirring up the courage to face the world as in “Keith’s Poem”:
“Reality is acid rain you can’t hold
When you inhabit a world
Of strangers who blindly glance
Through your weathered disguise.”
“Poets are always happy,” said Maxine Hong Kingston during her presentation at the opening reception. The author of Chinese-American classics “Woman Warrior” and “China Men” read excerpts from her very thin forthcoming book “To Be The Poet.” It is a coy, ironic, whimsical manifesto of a long-form novelist who wants to write something quickly and simply. The crowd of mostly writers, and the friends who suffer them, chuckled at Kingston’s reverie into artistic innocence.
Describing her brief foray into poetry, Kingston suggested that when words are difficult to find, try painting (as the members of the Veterans Writing Group did). To find a rhythm for your language, she said, try tap dancing: Her class of tap dancers was invited to stand for recognition.
Finally, her poetic excursion led her to the Zen practice“ensos,” and to a possible explanation of her writing class’ motivation. Ensos is a point of sublime meditation in which a subject paints a black circle on white rice paper. If older than 60, the 61-year-old Kingston explained with glee, “everything you put down is right.” That truism can be applied to the exhibit: If you have lived enough, and you are honest enough, everything you do is right.