Moderated by Ilya Kaminsky
THIS IS the second installment of a conversation initiated in response to Donald Trump’s 2017 executive order for the construction of the border wall where we ask poets to consider: What is border life? What does citizenship mean today? What is the language of the border? This forum began as a series of private letters between poets who live on the US/Mexico Border as well as those who have traveled far and wide; as the conversation grew, others were invited to share their perspectives. It is the second forum in response to Trump’s border wall. For the sake of space and overall cohesion, several responses have been edited or condensed
The history of poetry is a history of border crossings. We learn our craft from banished poets (Ovid, Dante, Milosz, Tsvetaeva, Bei Dao, Darwish, etc.), from poets who spent years of their lives on both sides of borders, or within prison walls, or in lines to prison walls, or in camps of various kind (Wang Wei, Hikmet, Akhmatova, Lorca, Mandelstam, etc), from poets who watched their people migrate by thousands, and yet proclaimed, as Boris Pasternak did, that “poetry transcends the borders, smashing those borders”–Ilya Kaminsky.
What does it mean to live on the border? what is border life? what does it mean to cross borders?
Carolyn Forché (b. USA): I grew up on the border between the U.S. and Canada, or rather between Windsor and Detroit. We crossed via bridge or via tunnel, depending on the traffic and where we were going on the other side. We had only to answer where we were born to be let across. We crossed on Sundays to have tea and crumpets, and so my mother could buy wool from Scotland for sewing clothes. We crossed in high school to park along the river on the Windsor side in view of the lights of Detroit and to be in love. During the Vietnam War, I crossed a few times with young men I didn’t know, pretending to be headed for the river. The men got out of the car at an address we’d been given, an ordinary brick house, and I watched them climb the steps and disappear inside, always into the same house. Most of these men would remain in Canada for the rest of their lives, and I would never see them again.
Alfonso García Cortéz (b. Tijuana): The word “border” refers to the numerous separations or boundaries which reality presents: economic, religious, cultural, legal borders; but it’s also true that the body itself is a border. Language is a border. Reality is a border. Imagination is a border..
To live on the border is to carry all of that on one’s back, sometimes without being aware of it.
There is the constant presence of the “other” in the landscape: the “bordo,” the helicopters of the “migra,” the traffic inching up to the “línea,” the bilingual billboards and signs, as well as migrants and immigrants, the repatriated and the expats, the foreigners and tourists, and the family members who live on the other side, “al otro lado.”
I believe that we constantly cross borders.
Expressing ourselves is a form of crossing the body’s border.
Leaving one’s home is in itself a border crossing towards the uncertainty of the city.
We exit from ourselves, from what we associate as ours, towards a different place.
Thus, the border is then revealed as something that is not rigid at all, not as simple as a wall.
Rather, it’s flexible and porous, an exchange of glances, a game of mirrors.
Kwame Dawes (b. Ghana): I have lived all my life fully aware of borders. Sometimes they were innocuous, points of crossing between one country and one world and another. My grandfather lived in Togo while we lived in Ghana. We spent parts of the summer in Togo and so had to cross the border. We understood the novelty of entering a new country without crossing water. The language changed, the landscape barely changed. We were traveling through markers imposed on a place that did not have those markers before, and so the absurdity and brutality of the border, and the political complexity of what it means, stood in contrast with the fact that my mother’s people, Ewe people, were divided by a border that simply ignored their own nation self. So while my grandmother lived in Ghana, my grandfather lived in Togo. This was family negotiating the border and the complications of the domestic. That same border, when things became hairy in Ghana, was a refuge—a place to head towards. Borders, it is true, can be shelters. For most of my life, borders have happened in the pristine mute halls of airports. Uniformed smiling agents decide who I am and where I can go. For decades, the short walk to the kiosk, no matter where in the world I am, is filled with disquiet, anxiety, and sometimes fear. Soon, I learned to grow comfortable with the rituals of detention, interrogation, silence, and then release. I have imagined what it means to be deported, what it means to be uprooted. It was, for years, not mere theory. After all, I have been asked to leave one country for another before. It is a horror. I do not abhor borders. They are what they are. But I can never not see a border as one of the clearest examples of what divides the lived and felt experience of people around the world. Americans may never truly understand that those immigration corridors in airports all around their country and places that are electric with fear and with the trauma of being abused, dismissed and coldly handled by the full force of their national machinery. This is one of that cluster of necessary evils that as a nation we prefer not to look at. But not looking does not disappear its horror. This poem is about the ways in which borders can mean quite different things depending on who owns the fence. The greatest lament that consumes those of us who have stood in line waiting to know our fate at the Border Control is the deepest desire for a home, a place where someone will say, “Welcome home, we have been waiting for you. Here is your dignity. Here is your love. Here is your welcome embrace. We have been keeping it here for you, o traveler.” The tragedy of our times is that so many of us must walk this world carrying this as a dream only.
Abeer Hoque (b. Nigeria): To me, borders immediately bring to mind: geography and nationhood. More specifically: xenophobia and racism.
I grew up in Nigeria with Bangladeshi parents, and my family now lives in the US. Border crossing is a fact of my life whether I like it or not, these countries’ boundaries are a part of my identity.
I was/am privileged to live in all these places that I’m ostensibly from without fear of state reprisal, i.e. I had the (lucky) right papers, the (lucky) right timing, the (lucky) right ethnicity, for now anyway.
I recognize how arbitrary and tenuous that position is.
Monica Ávila (Mexicali): From a very young age, when I lived as a child in Mexicali, I would hear the words “el otro lado,” or the “other side.” My father worked for his whole life in the Imperial Valley, Fallbrook, and San Clemente. That was my first introduction to learning about living, or making one’s life in two countries simultaneously, and to name certain things in a mixture of English and Spanish.
Living on the border—and now I live in Tijuana—is like having a playlist; we exchange languages. But the parties always take place in Spanish, because they’re more fun that way!
One’s heart resides in both places, because the heart doesn’t need to flash a Tourist Visa.
Joan Kane (b. Inupiaq people / USA): To move along the edge of something, to dwell both in the known and unknown and to move into uncertainty while seeking that which sustains life is not just characteristic of Inuit, but of all people. Inupiaq hunters follow the edge of the ice pack, and to cross can mean life—a successful hunt to bring home to one’s family— or death— getting stranded on drift ice. In contemporary life, we confront and cross invisible borders that have been imposed upon us by colonial governments. Inupiaq people in villages like Iŋaliq (Little Diomede) on the American side of the “Ice Curtain” were separated from their families in Imaqłiq (Big Diomede) on the Russian side of the Bering Straits.
Diego Ordaz (Ciudad Juárez): Living on the border, or the “frontera,” signifies that I’m “fronterizo,” but I have never, never ever, feel aware of my “borderism,” if I can use that word.
I would cross the bridge towards the United States every three days as a child, holding my mother’s hand, accompanied by my aunt, my cousins, and my siblings, and I never figured out that I was a “fronterizo.”
I discovered that I was a “fronterizo” when someone else called me a “writer from the border.”
I believe that living on the border is something that doesn’t make one feel strange…you’re living here and that’s that.
I was being “fronterizo,” or a border-region writer, when I was confronted by “the other.”
To interact with Gringos, Chicanos, Migrants from southern Mexico: it just simply means being “fronterizo.”
Piotr Florczyk (b. Poland): The act of border-crossing is literarily on my mind, as I have just arrived in London. When my wife and daughter and I were herded along with hundreds of others towards the UK immigration checkpoint at Heathrow, I was deciding which of my two passports to use. The line for British and EU citizens was far shorter than the one for everyone else, but in the end, I opted for staying with my family and used my U.S. passport to enter Great Britain.
Most don’t have this option of deciding where they belong—there are people, some sinister and cynical, not to mention heartless, who use force to decide it for them. To do so, they elevate their own language over all others. Likewise, their fear of the Other propels them to label and pigeonhole and, ultimately, denigrate those who do not look like them. I’ve learned over the years how to wear different masks, but sometimes I wonder if my being comfortable in my own skin is just an illusion.
Carmen Radley (b. USA): My partner and I had just driven from California to Big Bend in West Texas for my cousin’s wedding. At no point in the thousand-mile drive had we ranged further than fifty or sixty from the US-Mexico border, and more than once, we beheld sections of the wall. In Yuma, it was a solid barrier resembling the rusted corrugated tin of a salvage yard; in El Paso, steel mesh at the edge of the interstate revealed the hills of Juarez topped with boxy stucco houses. Here, however, there was no barrier but a shallow ribbon of water, milky brown, edged on both sides with willows and reeds.
Big Bend is sparsely settled and remote, three hundred miles from an airport. Though it encompasses over 6,000 square miles, Brewster County, Texas, is home to fewer than 10,000 people, and more than half of them live an hour north in Alpine, the county seat. There are only a few dozen people in each of the tiny outposts near the border. Otherwise, it’s just tourists, there for the canyons and bluffs in Big Bend National Park to the east and Big Bend Ranch State Park to the west. They’re rewarded for their journey with views that rival any park it the American West in sweeping grandeur, absent the elbow-to-elbowness of a place like Joshua Tree or Arches.
The local economy, though small, is largely built around these tourists. The communities of Terlingua and Lajitas on the north side of the river are made up of hotels and a few restaurants, and for many years, that was true on the south side as well, in the towns of Boquillas and Paso Lajitas. There weren’t any official crossings in the immediate vicinity, but border patrol tolerated the commerce between the towns, watching everything through binoculars from bluffs high above, taking note of the permanent residents, all of whom they knew by sight, as well as the activities of any newcomers.
After 9/11, the US government tamped down on those unofficial ports of entry and began raids in towns like Terlingua and Lajitas to enforce the closure. Suddenly, what had been a minutes-long walk became an hours-long drive on bad roads over harsh terrain. With that, the crossing by tourists stopped. Even worse, the people who lived on the river, who regularly crossed to work or shop or share a meal with friends and family, who depended on each other like any neighbors, were sundered.
With the temperature ranging toward one hundred degrees, my partner and I headed back to the water at one of the old crossings, the one between Lajitas and Paso Lajitas. When we arrived, there were hundreds of people clustered on the north and south banks. They’d come from all over the region, bringing tents to shade themselves from the glaring midday sun. They’d also brought music, food, drink, floats and beach balls, and there were dozens of children splashing in the muddy water. The adults waded in too. One was a man from Mexico dressed in a crisp pink button down, wrangler jeans, and a cowboy hat and boots, who despite such attire still charged through the thigh-deep water. Another was a woman from the US yanking on the bridle of an uncooperative burro whose saddlebags were filled with hotdogs to give to children on the other side.
It was an annual gathering, a “fiesta protesta,” where locals hoped to highlight what was lost when the crossing was closed. More than a decade had passed since then, and Paso Lajitas, which had once been home to about a hundred people, had shrunk to only one family—something that especially stung in light of the fact that the Boquillas crossing, sixty-seven miles to the east, had been reopened, and once again, people could wade across the shallows, or, for a small fee, ride across on a burro to get tacos or a beer. We were told that the planners of the fiesta protesta had consulted law enforcement about their plans from the beginning, and that each year, the authorities simply turn a blind eye for the day, though I suspect they were watching us all quite closely.
To accurately render the exceeding goodwill of that experience is near impossible. I’m a sucker for symbols of unity, but it felt like true grace to stand knee deep in the muddy water, watching people step gingerly over rocks that litter the river bottom, hanging on each others’ arms, laughing; seeing loved ones meet in the middle in an eager embrace.
Roberto Castillo Udiarte (Playas Tijuana): To live between two distinct worlds. Pesos and dollars. Tacos and hamburgers. Tías and uncles. Tequila and whiskey. Pedro Infante and Tony Bennet. Quinceañeras and Sweet Sixteens. Spanish and English.
And then to cross them, unite them through language, and from that union of two different languages, to invent such things as: Fish tacos, Toluca Lake, Tortilla Shop, and to have children with names like Stacy Gutiérrez or Chuy Smith.
Despite the anti-immigration politics and absurd presidential decrees, there is not, nor will there ever be, walls that will prove to be wholly impenetrable.
Instead, there will always be bridges.
Because there are no walls that can halt a flu virus, or great poems, or delicious home recipes. Because the planet belongs to every citizen of the world.
Because the best and most useful passport, and one which doesn’t have an expiration date, is one’s own heart.
Sandeep Parmar (b. United Kingdom): A few years ago I started carrying both my US and my UK passport with me at all times. Knowing that I’m tremendously privileged to have citizenship and lived in equal parts of my life in two countries, I carry them with a certain amount of ambivalence. Was it too much trouble to take them out and remember them when I was travelling? Did I feel on some level that I needed to bring evidence of my ‘belonging’ with me wherever I went? Was it just handy to have them both, because increasingly I needed to produce a legal identity, like for the NHS surgery receptionist that frowned audibly when I tried to book an appointment with my American accent? On the day after Brexit I walked past a group of men near where I work and they turned and smirked enigmatically, eyebrows raised, without saying but thinking ‘guess you’ll be leaving soon, eh?’ I wanted to take out my passport and say, ‘sorry, buddy, I’m here to stay’. I would have added, had I not been so surprised, that my grandparents were subjects of the British empire and I had a right to come and go as I pleased, the way their ancestors had traipsed through India taking whatever they liked without asking. I look at my British passport and wonder if someone will come door to door to scratch off ‘European Union’ embossed on its cover. I look at my American passport and wonder if patriotism wasn’t ever linked to violence. I pass through borders and debate which passport to show the guards and ask what difference it makes to the body who is passing through, without allegiance, loyalty or belonging. Citizenship is more than the possession of a passport and its associated rights and privileges, but the building of walls and the drawing up of drawbridges and the deporting of immigrants has reduced what it means to be a citizen to the most basic lie: that me and my other passport holders share the will of the State, that we ourselves even share anything more than place, context, sometimes language, its borders. What I’ve learned from my two countries (and India’s Partition) is that borders shift around you and those you love, and once someone has drawn a line through your body or made you cross through a line of fire, your descendants don’t forget. They carry your borders with them for generations. And they wait for someone who was once familiar to turn on them and raise their eyebrows.
Kaveh Akbar (b. Iran): Of course, there are the borders between nations—in my case, the borders between my Iranian self and my American self are the most salient, the ones that take up the largest percentage of my consciousness at any given moment. I love what Ishion Hutchinson said about this to you, “Perhaps border life is a wish to be borderless.” I can’t improve on that.
But there is another border that exists between this life and whatever comes after, and that’s the border toward which we are all, regardless of national origin, constantly lurching. Who isn’t obsessed with that border? In my experience as an addict, the membrane between me and the other side has been so thin at times as to become practically translucent. I’ve seen the light coming through from the other side, I’ve pressed my ear up to the wall and heard the whispers.
So what do I do with that? Well, that’s what the poems are for, working though the staggering strangeness of still being here.
Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations is one of the great border narratives I’ve ever encountered. Max passed last year, and the book was his account of being a young man facing down a diagnosis of terminal cancer, preparing to cross The Great Border. When Max first sent me the book a few months before he passed, it read like a strange and beautiful registry of people and things Max had loved well. Today, it reads to me like an instruction manual for steeling those people and things in his absence, like Max himself reaching across the border between this world and the next to hold the reader’s hand in his own. He writes, “I am missing everything living / that won’t come with me / into this sunny afternoon.” For Max, that included all of us.
Rosa Espinoza (b. Mexicali): I have always lived on the border: I have never lived elsewhere, and if I were to live elsewhere, it would only be to prove to myself how different things would be if I didn’t live in this territorial limit.
The idea of mutual dependence doesn’t please me, doesn’t interest me, doesn’t inspire me. I am more moved by the culture of my own country. Heading down South is a magnet, and I feel quite comfortable with that distance between my body, and the demarcation from the gringos.
My day starts here on the shore, and every day I drive by the metal wall, yet I pay it no mind, it’s just a physical space. It doesn’t cease to be violent, aggressive.
I haven’t been to the States for ten years; this results from a personal decision, even with the time I spent there as a child. There’s some childhood nostalgia, odors, and colors that evoke my childhood, but like living here, my time spent there wasn’t a personal decision. I don’t remember feeling well there, nor enjoying it. My experience as an adult with gringos hasn’t been pleasant. That’s why I avoid them.
And if that implies what it means to be a resident of the border, then I’ll stay where they treat me better.
Arthur Kayzakian (b. Iran): From my experience, it means to live on edge. I was three years old, when my mother consoled me by saying, “the parade is coming!” She closed the blinds and turned off the lights. The sound of drums boomed outside the window. When I got older, I realized the drums were bombs. I am grateful to be in the United States because my family escaped the tyranny of the Ayatollah taking residence in Iran, but I am conflicted about the word borders. I am told I carry Armenian blood, but I was born on Iranian soil. Now, I am in the process of obtaining my U.S. citizenship, but what does any of this mean when I never feel like I belong anywhere. When I crossed the ocean to get here, all I did was trade one edge for another. At least for now, I am alive. I can live with this edge.
David Tomas Martinez (b. USA): Any academic conversation about the border begins with Gloria Anzaldua’s La Frontera/Borderlands, with Judith Butler’s notion of gender performance, with Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s discussion of intersectionality, which at their heart investigate borders and the emotional and physical barriers that mark off the space of discourse. Anzaldua’s work is particularly poignant to those of us that grew up near the border because it takes the physical, actual border and transforms it into a literary trope. The idea of crossing borders is conflated with my own childhood memories of going through the Tijuana port of entry, sitting in the back seat of our Monte Carlo, in bumper to bumper traffic, lifting my book high enough to catch the headlights from the car behind us. On a fortuitous evening, I would read while eating mango topped with lime and chile from a vendor that turtled their goods up and down the rows of cars. For those of us that grew up near the border, as I did in San Diego, of Chicanx descent, it meant, like those vendors, taking our identity, our Americaness, our “goods,” with us no matter where we went, even into another country. In that way, even in Mexico, I never left home.
Not long ago a woman I know returned to Mexico because her father was dying. She had been in the United States twenty-five years, had children, grandchildren, and a successful business in New York. Unfortunately she was undocumented. She knew the risks of returning to Mexico but felt compelled to see her father. She took her life savings and hoped for the best. The first time she was caught trying to reenter the United States, she was detained and returned to Mexico. The second time she was caught, she served jail time. Regardless of being in the United Sates for so long, the immigration lawyers were unable to help her. She is now separated from her daughters and grandchildren. I’ve heard enough horror stories, read enough accounts of border crossings such as in Luis Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway, to know this is not an isolated incident.
What does it mean to be a citizen? can one be a citizen of a border? can one be a citizen of language?
Rosa Espinoza (b. Mexicali): My concept of citizenships comes from Aristotle: A citizen creates a city. To create a city is to participate in collectivity, conscience.
And, of course, one doesn’t reside in only place; one’s language is also a place.
Carolyn Forché (b. USA): In the early spring of 1990, I walked with my friend, the poet Daniel Simko, among the rubble of Berlin Wall. Sections of the wall remained, and pieces were being sold as souvenirs from blankets spread on the street, along with Soviet military decorations, and ratty fur aviator hats. We still had to pass through Checkpoint Charlie to go to our hotel in the East, and the border guard was curtly inquisitive, but there was nothing much he could do about anyone passing in either direction, German or foreigner. I still have a shirt imprinted with the famous sign: you are now leaving the american sector Вы покидаете американский сектор vous sortez du secteur américane sie verlassen den amerikanischen sektor.
That spring young men and women gathered at the wall after work and on weekends to play music, sit on what remained, and pull the rest down with sledge hammers and their bare hands. So we sang with them. I have bits of the wall on a bookcase among the poetry.
Some years after Daniel’s death, I returned to Berlin and found myself lost at Alexanderplatz. The television tower Fernsehturm was still there, walkable from our hotel those years ago, and also the World Time Clock and the Fountain of Friendship Between Peoples. This is where we would meet, we said, if we were to become separated. Now we were separated by death and the wall was gone.
There are stones set here and there into the sidewalk to mark the place where the wall once stood. An old woman showed them to me, tapping a stone with her cane. Here, she said. Now you will always know where you are.
The same spring, and before we went to Berlin, Daniel and I decided to fly into Vienna, rent a car, and drive across the bridge into Bratislava. It was possible to do it. Vaclav Havel was in the castle in Prague, and former Czechoslovakia was now free. I was waved through with the car, but Daniel was told to get out for questioning. His U.S. passport showed that he was born in Bratislava, and when the border guard looked from him to his passport and back, he was asked how it was that he became a U.S. citizen and precisely when did this happen. I left with my parents after the Prague Spring, Daniel answered. The border guard’s name tag said Hradnek. This Hradnek knew what it meant to leave at that time, to leave after the Warsaw Pact invasion crushed the Prague Spring. You are a traitor, Hradnek said. We should arrest you right now. I had parked the car and gone back on foot for Daniel, who was still arguing with Hradnek. Let’s go, I said to him in English. You’re an American citizen. Let’s just walk. They could shoot us, Daniel said. They won’t shoot us, I assured him, not knowing what I was talking about. We walked. Daniel lit a cigarette without stopping. They didn’t shoot. We got back into the car and drove to the house of his childhood, where some of his family still lived.
Joan Kane (b. Inupiaq people / USA): Ugiuvaŋmiuguruŋa (I am from King Island) makes me a citizen of a place that has not been inhabited for more than five decades. However, I am from King Island, even though I have only been to my mother’s childhood home once. I am enrolled as a member of the King Island tribal community. I am a citizen, then, of a place that no longer exists in the eyes of the colonial government. Of a border between a long past and turbulent present, with all of its generative future potential.
On the other hand, to be a citizen of a colonial government means being complicit in its language and its systems. I no longer think of myself as assimilated into the dominant culture. I have infiltrated it. Crazy and self-important, yes, but I am occupying the English language, and through that occupation have become a citizen of the United States.
In the fall of 1965— six years after Alaska became part of the US— when my mother was not permitted to return to Ugiuvak (King Island) with her mother and father and younger brothers and instead was required to attend school on the mainland, she waded chest-high into the waters of the Bering Sea, signaling to her family on the umiak (walrus skin boat) until the boat disappeared on the horizon. As a girl, hearing this story, I experienced anew the broken heart, with all its abandonments and panics, that my mother felt/feels. I am quite sure she did/does as well. The border here, perhaps, was the one that kept my mother away from home on Ugiuvak.
Abeer Hoque (b. Nigeria): I love the idea of being a citizen of a border. Even better a citizen of language because it takes nationhood out of the equation.
My father, who is also a writer, once told me that in order to be a writer, I had to know a place, which to him meant living somewhere for a long time. What he doesn’t know is that it might be too late for me. I want to be able to create something from the so-called skim, from the outside in.
The poet Ocean Vuong stands on the edges of country, family, lover, and self; this line of his captures so much of the grief and hope that goes with migration:
If we make it to shore, he says, I will name our son after this water. I will learn to love a monster.
Piotr Florczyk (b. Poland): Poets are first and foremost citizens of a language. Whether they stay true to their native tongue or choose to think and express themselves in an adapted one, they pay allegiance to its words and their meanings and sounds whenever they sit down to write. They might not care about the poetic tradition they are writing themselves into, but they should remain humble before the language and let it speak through them.
Cynthia Dewi Oka (b. Indonesia): Perhaps the body itself can be thought of as a border, or rather, a gathering of borders – I am thinking of how different places, languages, peoples pass or do not pass through me because of the meanings with which my body has been inscribed. For instance, when I was growing up in Bali and Java, what would be said/done to/around me in places where I was being read as “native” were very different from where I was being read as “Chinese.” The same is true nowadays when I am being read as a straight or a queer woman; a model minority or a yellow peril; a young mother or a college student. Think of how we sweat, adjust our speech, demeanor or appearance as we approach a customs officer… I think spaces also react that way toward our bodies, read them on various spectrums.
Border life for me means having the clarity (resignation?) that I am made of multiple selves that perceive different worlds, that converge and contradict each other, whose only common ground is loss. I’m thinking of Adam Zagajewski’s poem, “To Go to Lvov,” where he wrote, “I won’t see you anymore, so much death / awaits you, why must every city / become Jerusalem and every man a Jew / … go breathless, go to Lvov, after all / it exists, quiet and pure as / a peach. It is everywhere.”
Carmen Radley (b. USA): North of the Rio Grande, there’s a two-lane highway that winds beside the river for fifty miles, from Lajitas to the town of Presidio. It’s said to be one of the prettiest routes in the country, and after an hour at the fiesta, we left and took the highway west to admire the views. We drove with windows down, warm air in our faces. Fifteen miles on, to our left was a boat ramp, a place to launch a canoe and set off down the river, which alternately flows through wide bottomland and narrow canyons. We turned in, parked, and walked down a dirt road to the water, then waded in. Here, the riverbed had the disappearing softness of silt. The actual line between the US and Mexico is—beautifully—the exact middle of the stream, so it changes over time as the river changes course. The National Park Service calls this border—quite obviously—“an artificial boundary imposed on the natural environment.” When I reached it, I could just touch bottom with the tips of my toes.
Driving along the border, my partner and I were awash in paradox: the alienating beauty of the landscape, the bleak freedom of the isolation. We took the river road west again, hugging the hillside, tracing the land carved out by the Rio Grande over the course of two million years. (As rivers do, it continues to dig. They say that, if you’re in a boat and quiet, you can hear the sediment in the water scraping at your hull.) We stopped frequently, to snap photos of the ocotillos, those spindly bushes that emerge from the earth like vortices; to peer down at the river, a vibrant green in the middle of the desert. On each side of the sluggish stream, the land rose up in mirror images: sandy bottoms, craggy foothills, weathered mountains the color of old pennies.
That Sunday afternoon last May, what I thought about was how small we humans are, and how shortsighted. To say that a wall is impractical in such a place is nothing if not understatement. As the region’s Republican Congressman Will Hurd wrote in January, “The 23rd District of Texas, which I represent, has over 800 miles of the border… and it is impossible to build a physical wall in much of its terrain. Big Bend National Park and many areas in my district are perfect examples of where a wall is unnecessary and would negatively impact the environment, private property rights and economy.” It’s a practical statement, speaking to practical realities—to the horses grazing on the north bank of the river, to the ragged topography, to the prospect of caterwauling public if the government decided to desecrate the beloved national park with a hideous scar of a wall. What he doesn’t mention is the haunting emptiness, the mountains under the sun, the elements cutting everything down, the earth being pulled apart, and how the only way to bear such things is to wade into the middle of the river, to reach out and take another person into your arms.
Alfonso García Cortéz (b. Tijuana): One can be a citizen of a border region, but the border is also something that inhabits and perhaps molds us.
We construct an identity based on the landscape, the local costumes, the different accent, some based on clichés with which others characterize us: the most visited border in the world, window to the south, or tequila, sex, and marijuana.
Well, in that sense, yes, I think we can be a citizen of the border.
When it comes to language, like the border itself, I believe that a double game is played: we belong to it, yet it belongs to us as well. Language defines us, frames us, allows us to transcend the body’s border, in order to reveal to us just who we are and what we feel, and how we perceive. Language itself is a border.
It permits us to name the things of reality. Its accent is felt in our rhythms: voice, song.
David Tomas Martinez (b. USA): Intersectionality has taught us that we are all at the borders, crossroads, of some forms of identity, comprising our sense of self. We are all fencing something off, trying to identify how and what we are as people. I think being a citizen means transcending these ideas of self, of jingoism and nationalism. The root of the word citizen is city, and like any thriving city, our idea of citizen should be growing, be able to encompass more, should incorporate not only the limits of the city but include the surrounding areas.
Kaveh Akbar (b. Iran): I was born in Iran. I came to America as a young boy, but Farsi was my first language. Today I don’t even speak it functionally. The poet Marwa Helal writes, “I learned my first language second,” and that’s precisely my relationship with English. The ghost of Farsi still exists in my brain, shaking its chains, leaving its shadowy footprints in my English. It hasn’t renounced its citizenship in the kingdom of my psychic life.
That said, I very much believe a person can be a citizen of a border. Many Worlds Theory tells us there are infinite alternate timelines in which every possible version of our lives are being played out, adjacent to this one. Given the misspent youth I alluded to earlier, I think ours is probably one of the only worlds in which I’m not presently incarcerated or dead.
Today, this version of me has this cartoonish luxury poet-life of corresponding with one of his favorite poets, on a Monday morning. But, were it not for the intervention of a series of minor miracles in my mid-twenties, I would have continued down a path with only two possible destinations, an institution or a grave. I am a citizen of the border between this self and those selves. It’s a state that colors every precarious day with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
Monica Ávila (b. Mexicali): To be a citizen of language? We smile without needing to use any words in any language. The words come from the space itself, they make their roads, they navigate with their own rhythm. I’m a citizen from the north, from the border of light.
Arthur Kayzakian (b. Iran): I am a citizen of the Armenian language, and of the English language. What that means is I attempt to serve the language in any way I can. Whether it is poetry or other kinds of writing, even silence is the form of language that I try to be an active participant in; however, I don’t feel silence is the proper language for our current social and political climate.
The opposite of silence, which I believe to be protest, is the form for the citizen of language today.
Is there any border–not geographical? another kind?– that is significant?
Joan Kane (b. Inupiaq people / USA): Is ice geographical? The margin of the ice, the sea. The periphery of discourse. The ways we can collaborate with language in order to survive, to change, to adapt.
The wolf dance / messenger feast, a kinship celebration continually practiced by Inupiaq communities up and down the Bering Sea coasts, has long brought people together. Some stories say that before we humans were instructed to begin the messenger feast, people from different places regarded each other as enemies. Now the wolf dance and messenger feast are known as ways to restore relationships and affirm our sovereignty. One of my cousins, Edward Tiulana, has been bringing Ugiuvaŋmiut people together this year to talk together about the possibilities of restoring the wolf dance to our current generations.
Carolyn Forché (b. USA): In grammar school, during the years just after the war, we drew the borders between countries with a flat-nib pen dipped in ink composed of lampblack and water. We had to hold the pen steady, as there could be no mistakes. “India Ink,” as it was called, was invented in China, and is so indelible that preserved specimens in zoological museums are tagged with it, either on the specimens themselves or on tracing paper, and it doesn’t fade even when submerged in preservative fluids such as formaldehyde.
National borders are not so permanent. I had to leave childhood before I knew that such borders were not, in fact, visible on earth, and that Greenland, despite its size on our distorted maps, was not the largest and most powerful nation.
In 1961, when I was eleven years old, we woke to a black & white news report that a concrete wall had been built between East and West Berlin, seemingly overnight. The wall would include guard towers and a “death strip” of trenches, landmines and barbed wire. We children wondered how such a wall could have been built entirely in one night, just as we wondered how there could be a curtain made of iron separating east from west. In fact, the wall was not built in a night. The streets between East Berlin and West Berlin were torn up beginning just after midnight on Sunday morning, August 13th, but the concrete barrier did not appear until the 17th August. In between, barbed wire entanglements were strung and troops deployed to shoot anyone fleeing east to west. A decade later, a friend would tell me that he was one of those shot that August and spent two years in rehabilitation to recover from his wounds. In East Berlin, he had worked in secret. On crutches, a few years later he watched an anti-war March in the streets of Washington D.C., returned to his office and resigned from the secret work.
A decade after that, David Bowie and Brian Eno wrote and recorded the song “Heroes” inspired by lovers from East and West Berlin, and in 1987, Bowie would sing “Heroes” at the Reichstag, and it would be thought that this song helped to bring the wall down. If I had been a child, I would have imagined this meant that a song could pass through concrete.
Cynthia Dewi Oka (b. Indonesia): Other kinds of borders?
I knew a man once who had come to Canada as a child refugee from Vietnam. His father had chopped off some of his own fingers to avoid being drafted into the Communist army. This man was very intelligent but he did not graduate high school and like many other Southeast Asian immigrant youth where we lived, was constantly harassed by the police. When my father got sick with cancer, he was the one who drove us to the doctors. He buried my father with me.
But multiple worlds are the inheritance of displaced peoples. I can’t know or say for sure, but that is how I understand what happened to us – he was doing, let’s say, dangerous, work to pay the bills and could or would not come with me when for the sake for our child, I decided to try to reach for the more obvious accoutrements of citizenship – I mean, a university education, I mean, a nine-to-five job with crappy retirement options, I mean, what marks you as approximating “citizen” in a colonial, white supremacist, neoliberal country. And so I, and our son, became another country to him.
David Tomas Martinez (b. USA): I think right now, in the midst of this political climate, the most glaring border is between those that recognize the insidious effects of racism, patriarchy, homophobia, classism, ableism, etc., and those that defend these bigotries, aware or not. The election of Donald Trump, to me, exemplifies how deeply rooted bigotry is in this country. To be black and run for president, one has to be a “perfect” candidate, a pinnacle of their “race,” or as many Americans said about Obama, not really black. The highest compliment some believe that can be given to a person of color is that they transcend race. This seeking to assimilate those outside of the dominant perspective is a form of bigotry. No one, particularly not even “white” Americans, would consider Trump the pinnacle of “whiteness.” Even the supporters of Trump often deplore his behavior while hoping he will change the course of this country. How can we make America great again? By closing our borders? By bringing back segregation? The divide that was quiet has come to the forefront of American conscience. How we choose to engage with bigotry will define how we move forward as a country and as individuals.
Piotr Florczyk (b. Poland): My Heathrow example is physical—bodies crossing a geographical border. I, however, am much more fascinated by the psychological and imaginary frontiers we cross daily. I travel even when I stand still. I get lost when I dream. The ever-growing need for empathy and understanding drives me to scrutinize my beliefs and creeds. Indeed, like the speaker in Ciaran Carson’s famous poem, “Belfast Confetti,” who’s caught in the middle of violence, I turn the lens upon myself as much as I do it to others. Am I part of the border problem? What are my blind spots? Or, repeating after the end of Carson’s poem, “What is / My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I going? A fusillade of question marks.”
Is there such a thing as “language” of a border? Is that a language of sounds? Images? anything else?
Joan Kane (b. Inupiaq people / USA): Any language that disturbs our complacency with (in)convenient binaries: (transactional) loan words, onomatopoeia, images that accrue and transform into symbols.
Abeer Hoque (b. Nigeria): I think using multiple “languages” – both artistic and linguistic – might be the only way to begin to capture the complexity and chaos and richness of life itself.
I recently reread Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, which can be interpreted as a story of border crossing, into fantasy, dreaming, madness, hallucination, imagination, and more. So many of the characters have entered our public consciousness as figures of speech and metaphor and humour. I love both how all the mad things happen so casually, and how there’s no moral, no lesson, no resolution. It just gets “curiouser and curiouser” until Alice comes to, her sister brushing leaves from her face.
Kaveh Akbar (b. Iran): It’s funny because every human is wired to be obsessed with death, the great border I keep talking about, but of course spoken language fails us when we take it there. Franz Wright wrote “How does one go / about dying? / Who on earth / is going to teach me— / The world is filled with people / who have never died.” How can people who have never visited a place speak in its language? As poets, we try and fail and keep trying, knowing we will continue to fail. I see a kind of idiot dignity in that doomed pursuit.
Cynthia Dewi Oka (b. Indonesia): A language of a border? If there is, it would be, I think, a palimpsestic technology – something erased, infiltrating, salted with blood.
Kwame Dawes (b. Ghana): As my answer, here is a “Meditation on Walls and Fences”
First along South 77th, where it turns into a maze
of illogical design, then up Stevens Ridge Road,
all tree-full Ashbrook, East on West Shore Drive,
along South 84th, down the curl of Cheney Ridge,
then the debris-festooned Amelia Drive, with the geese-
glutted lake with its “No Trespassers” signs;
eventually, South 78th Street, and back home again.
The ankle has not collapsed. This is my hood,
these are the coordinates of my daily walk,
three miles of meditative ordinariness,
the body limping along, deep breaths;
the world assumes the pulse of this body,
and here I welcome the coincidence of thought,
and imagine that where that spark
of meaning happens inside the brain
lies the matter of poetry, of what poetry
might be made of. As if in nineteen o’ three
the round-headed Dubois, with his tidy whiskers
and elegant style, might encounter the landed New England
Frost, freshly alit from England and the looming war.
It is true that ten years separated these musings,
but this is “The Veil”, is it not? It is how the wall
is made, not the use of stone or timber,
not the politeness of the divisions we make
despite the unruly branches of apple trees
dropping their overripe fruit on ground
covering roots that cross the limits of our
properties, not the tidy boxes we make
of our world. Those are the musings of Frost.
With Dubois, the matter is brutish, to build
a fence one must own that which the fence
limits, and for those who have nothing, whether
elves or negroes, serfs or slaves, New Englander or no,
a fence is a prison, an annoying interruption
of the long stretch of deception. Open
Georgia lands in the black belt are nothing
but the bounty denied the labourer. We all know
the language of division, the rituals of the civilized,
but how easily a fence becomes the synecdoche
of our decomposing civilities. Why summarize,
why not lay the cards out, making room
from the breath of meter? Then side by side
another new art is made: present, urgent
and lamentably luminous to our time.
I think I never before quite realized
the place of the Fence in civilization.
This is the Land of the Unfenced,
where crouch on either hand
scores of ugly one-room cabins,
cheerless and dirty. Here lies
the Negro problem in its naked dirt
and penury. And here are no fences.
But now and then the crisscross rails
or straight palings break into view,
and then we know a touch of culture is near.
And those over yonder, why should they build
fences on the rack-rented land?
It will only increase their rent.
— W.E.B Dubois, 1903
Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offence. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him, but it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather he said it for himself.
— Robert Frost, 1914
Note on translations:
All contributions by Mexican poets have been translated by Anthony Seidman, who’s given an extraordinary amount of time and energy in putting together this forum.
All of the border photos in this piece are by Ilya Kaminsky.