Henri Matisse. The Swimming Pool, Maquette for ceramic (realized 1999 and 2005). 1952. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper, overall 73" × 53' 11" (185.4 × 1643.3 cm). Installed as nine panels in two parts on burlap-covered walls 11' 4" (345.4 cm) high. Frieze installed at a height of 5' 5" (165 cm). Mrs. Bernard F. Gimbel Fund. Conservation was made possible by the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. © 2019 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

sans papiers

A poet reflects on a world without papers.
lê thị diễm thúy November 26, 2019

For this Poetry Project, we asked Robin Coste Lewis, the poet laureate of Los Angeles, to invite a group of poets to contribute an original poem written in response to a work of art in MoMA’s collection. In addition to hearing these poems read by their authors and reading about their creation on Magazine, you can listen to them in front of the chosen artwork as a part of our new Poetry Audio Tour of the collection galleries.

sans papiers

cut into the color
of those waters

feel the past course through you
and then fall

graze the inside
of a woman’s thigh

flip this white frieze black
it now is night

pin a fish’s tail to the scene
inhale the trail of fireworks on the shore

watch the world explode
before your eyes

lift these threads of memory off the floor

weigh the seas you swallowed
to swim here

Why did you choose this work of art?

I was interested in looking at Henri Matisse’s The Swimming Pool and writing about it as a piece that flips day into night. I was thinking about migrants crossing water, people moving from one world into another. I imagined one of those people standing in front of this piece and taking in both the exuberance and the gravity of the paper cutout. I thought about them feeling the gravity of having crossed bodies of water and bodies of memory. It was very important to me the moment the title arrived, “sans papiers,” because it’s both an homage to the paper cutout, but also echoing the notions of those who have no papers, what it means to be without papers, to be born across water, to be floating. Those were some of the impulses behind the poem.

lê thị diễm thúy is the author of The Gangster We Are All Looking For.