Cao Fei. Whose Utopia. 2006. Video (color, sound), 20:20 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Anonymous promised gift. © 2021 Cao Fei. Courtesy of the artist and Vitamin Creative Space

For this year’s edition of our Poetry Project, we asked poet Ada Limón to select nine distinguished American poets to respond to artworks from the Museum’s collection. Here, Forrest Gander shares his poem inspired by Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia.

Excerpt from Cao Fei. Whose Utopia. 2006. © 2021 Cao Fei. Courtesy of the artist and Vitamin Creative Space

For Cao Fei, Whose Utopia

Behind it all, the ratcheting arterial
    pulse of machinery. My pupils are fixed
        in place, as though by needles,

on the task at hand. At hand,
    synovials of tungsten filament, contact wire,
        gas-filled glass bulbs. An orchestral

clinking. Until, as though called forth
    from my collective hours of concentration,
        some afterbirth of monotony,

the unpredicted enters the room like a pair
    of gods sheathed in silence, miracles
        of precarity rupturing

the membrane between habit and
    dream. He with his swiveling step, she
        pulling back her shoulders. Their inner stillness

adds magnanimity to their motions. Uncanny, pre-
    hypnotic, incomprehensible,
        mustard flowers waving in a charred field. How

can I look away? My eyes have no lids. If
    I grant them just a minute of my attention, I wonder
        if I could emerge from what has shattered inside me

Forrest Gander

Forrest Gander

1. Why did you choose this work of art?
On my way into the museum to find the artwork I had researched and selected for my poem accompaniment, I passed through the room where Cao Fei’s film was playing, and I stood there and then sat there for the next hour watching the film repeatedly, wiping tears from my eyes. It chose me.

2. What was your approach to writing a poem about it?
I tried to open myself completely to the rhythms, the varying moods, and the poignant impact of Cao Fei’s film, and to write something that might serve as a kind of core sample of its emotional depth.

Forrest Gander, a writer and translator with degrees in geology and literature, was born in the Mojave Desert and lives in northern California. His books, often concerned with ecology, include Be With, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, the novel The Trace, and Twice Alive, just out from New Directions. Gander’s translations and co-translations include Alice Iris Red Horse by Gozo Yoshimasu, Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura, and Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda Poems. He has received grants from the Library of Congress and the Guggenheim, Howard, Whiting, and United States Artists foundations.