Strangers’ Poems: Louise Nevelson

By Ben Bernthal, poet

April 11, 2024

Ben Bernthal in front of Louise Nevelson, Sky Cathedral’s Presence I, 1959–1962. Painted wood and found objects, 107 x 120 1/8 x 21 1/2 in. (271.8 x 305.1 x 54.6 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Foundation purchase, Phyllis C. Watts Fund for Major Accessions, 2017.50 ©️ Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ben Bernthal’s Strangers’ Poems is a social art practice that can happen anywhere — from a street corner to a café — and invites conversation beyond small talk. Ben sits with a typewriter and a sign that invites people to give words and get a poem in return. An original poem is crafted on the spot, as the result of this collaborative process. Following are poems created by Ben, based on viewers’ responses to Louise Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral's Presence I (1959–1962) at the de Young.

“memory, puzzle, mystery” for Cady

the darkness equalizes.
all the objects left
unordered, found again
in sleep. charred chimney.
keepsakes long forsaken
now again in reach.
un-puzzling the artifacts
in their deaf swagger,
in their silk pajamas
made of shadows cast.
each mystery underwritten
by foreboding black.

Typewritten poem by Ben Bernthal

Typewritten poem for Cady

“crutch, pedestal, lost” for Isaac

lost pedestal,
crutch kicked
from under arm,
resulting spill
of body against
asphalt’s timeless
black. the water rings
from bedside cups,
their sweat, their stains
of memories erased.
in what key did 
the singer sing?

Handwritten poem by Ben Bernthal

Handwritten notes for Isaac’s poem

“containment, refuse, scavenge” for Gioia

containment breaks. 
the artist scavenges
among the rats
of broken boroughs.
refuse as a refuge
one can build
from cast-off cabinets,
milk crates, the busted
banisters of the forsaken
brownstones past atonement.
the worlds we make,
the worlds we occupy.

Typewritten poem by Ben Bernthal

Typewritten poem for Gioia

“altered, reinvigorate, uniform” for Kalina

an altar


black lacquer

painted onto

splintered edges–

how the disparate

parts may be ordered

into new oblivions.

the rigid edges


into funeral uniform.

Typewritten envelope by Ben Bernthal

Typewritten envelope for Kalina

For more on Ben Bernthal’s work, visit Strangers’ Poems or find him @bbernthal.

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