Topaz, Utah, 1942


After a painting by Chiura Obata, interned at Topaz during WWII.

You know stories the painting does not tell.
First you see clouds of mustard and smoke.
Far away, a man bends against the wind.
His legs buckle and he falls. You think
the endless winter mud makes him stumble,
then you hear the echo of a shot
and it siphons all sunlight. Guard towers
do not show in government photos.
Barbed wire is a paper tiger.
He could as easily leave as take off
his face when he takes off his clothing,
his artist’s smock ochre with storm dust.
You helped make brushes of sage and tumble
weed, dipped them in cinder and lampblack.
There was no canvas, just cotton ticking
cut from a mattress where you both slept.
And you are his widow, you remember
traveling to this place. They pinned numbers
to your coat, loaded you on a cart like
so much baggage. You got sixteen dollars
bereavement pay. You remember him
with prayer slips you place in trees wherever
you find them, as if they are Shinto shrines.
Their branches rustle in the wind. You think
of his arms waving, calling you home.



Note on the poem: I was struck by the painting “Topaz Dust Storm” by Obata when I saw it as part of a collection. Intrigued, I gathered information from the library to learn more and asked people who had some knowledge of Japanese religious customs to share what they knew. The poem was a long time coming and went through several iterations. Here are additional resources that readers might find interesting:

A monochromatic version of the painting that inspired the poem

Information on the artist:

Information on a play that was developed based on an incident that I believe happened to Obata at the camps:



Freedom Fries