Poet and place activist Kaia Sands poses this question as she leads our group on an interactive walk along the grounds of The Expo Center at the northern tip of Portland, Oregon. Before me I see 60 acres of asphalt and buildings stretching to the urban horizon; above me is the double arm of the Timber Gateway strung with steel Japanese internment tags.
This land holds two traumatic stories of two minority communities not often spoken of in “liberal” Oregon. Sands walked this land quietly and intensely, even in a string of days for a month, to listen to the land to unearth the invisible “ruins” of these events. First came the 1942 WWII Japanese Internment Camp. For 4 months Japanese Americans were confined in the Portland International Livestock Exposition Grounds, renamed the Portland Assembly Center, awaiting deportation to permanent camps in ajoining states. Second, came the 1948 Vanport Flood that erased the largest public housing project in the US at that time. Vanport, a shanty town built on a flood plain, housed returning Internment victims and the majority of African-Americans living in Oregon.
In her book Remember to Wave (TinFish Press, 2010), poet Sands “maps” this territory of human stockades by splicing together original and found poems to show us the ruins that shimmer like heat waves off the Expo’s pavement. In the asphalt landscape we walk the poem of this Place. Sands carries an old small suitcase that holds all she will need. We carry nothing. She stops at places that seem quite unremarkable then rings her handmade toori rattle and begins to speak aloud the deep story that has been in silence too long. This was where the barbed wire fence stood; this was where the Japanese ate; in this place Shimizu was born; there stood Michi Yasunaga and James Wakagawa for their wedding; Akira Shimura died, there. We are in a ceremony.
The Australian Aborigines have walked the stories in their land for 60,000 years. In their world view, everything that is meaningful leaves a kind of footprint that can be seen through songlines, poetic story. Indeed, these song maps are the only way through their vast homeland. They sing of human story and mythic epics in a landscape rather than label places with human names or regional generalities. Singing story is how they find their way.
It was not lost on me that I rode the “Yellow Line” commuter train to the literal end of the line to this place of despair. Land always is telling its story. It was not lost on Kaia Sands that some fifteen feet from the memorial gate stands a large, white metal cell with air holes to lock in bicycles. For land is always telling its story. An excerpt from “User to Supply Lock” (a poem inspired by a phrase posted on the bike locker):
“Prisoner to supply shackles. Barbed wire. Dog to supply leash. Convicted to supply stenographer. Citizen to supply amnesia. Child to supply carbon emissions. Fish to supply lure. Chicken to supply fox. Raccoon. Eggs to supply opposum. Citizen to supply amnesia…”
Somehow this landscape culls the experience of stockades: livestock for butchering, Japanese Americans for silencing, then African-Americans for warehousing. In the ceremony to heal a place, what is it we release and what do we welcome back in? It is not necessarily “healing” to tear up the acres of parking lot and expose the earth. Nor need this land be made suitable for a “cheerful” housing development.
How we reverberate to a landscape’s own song makes a terrain heal, its story finding Place in our hearts. Healing is a motion of Belonging. We must listen to the land. We must sing its songlines. We must do ceremony. For this is the nomadic footpath to find the sublime in its indigenous, archetypal structure. Therein will be the way to re-member even the stories of exile and displacement.
Kaia Sands holds ceremony and sings the songlines for the displaced peoples held in this land. As she reads her poetry and the Haiku of the imprisoned, she has to pause frequently because the semi-trucks and Portland International Raceway car motors overwhelm her human voice. But that is all part of living the poem of this Place. Her voice rises again in the moments in-between, which is where these ruins live.