Green Crowd © Diana Ong / Bridgeman Images Jacket cover of Border Lines
On Border Lines
Poems of Migration
By Nicolette Reim
The book’s jacket shows a blurred, vibrantly colored, impressionistic rendering of a crowd traveling in the dark; the page marker is a pale blue ribbon, a color of childhood. Intimate in size, the book tells the stories of a particular group of vulnerable human beings. The volume is edited by Mihaela Moscaliuc and Michael Waters, Knopf, 2020, distinguished, widely published poets themselves. They have personal experiences with migration which they bring to their writing and teaching as professors of poetics. The book consists of 122 poems by poets around the world writing about migration from on-the-ground perspectives. Before reading a word, one senses unfolding stories, the not known becoming known. Just from a literary point of view, the book gives an encounter with poems beautifully crafted in a variety of lyrical poetic and prose poem forms of varying lengths. They include internationally known writers such Jules Supervielle (1884-1960), Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) and Andrée Chedid (1920-2011) with familiar contemporary poets and further talented writers and translators.
Peter A Ford, Walking, Talking and Standing Still © Peter A Ford/ Bridgeman Images
back of the Jacket cover of Border Lines
The stanzas weave departures, arrivals and journeys between; those who made it, those who didn’t and those still trying. They describe struggles every step of the way, holding on or letting go and the role of memory - the powerful triggers and keepers of the past within us all, released by smell, taste, touch, seeing and hearing. Typically, human migration is the movement over long distances from one country or place to another with the intention of staying temporarily or permanently. Early hunter/gatherers followed sources of food to areas where there had been no previous human settlers. Moving for survival is a part of our genetic beginnings. Later, migrations became predominantly warlike conquests by expanding populations. Colonialism placed sedentary populations into sparsely populated or seemingly uninhabited areas. Native residents could be overwhelmed by incoming settlers, not to mention, annihilated. Migration accelerated after the 18th century and increased further in the 19th century, propelled by industrialization and improved transportation. Colonizers from “home countries” to “the colonies” created paths from “the colonies” to “home countries.”
Diaspora, immigration and migration are now terms used interchangeably. Diaspora, from Greek, meaning to scatter or spread, is a fairly new word in English. Its first and principal meaning relates to the settling of the Jewish community outside of Palestine after the Babylonian exile thousands of years ago and has grown to include any group dispersed outside its traditional homeland. The term immigration has the connotation of “choice.” Migration has a special, different sense due to a continuum of involuntary to voluntary. Forced displacements – political and personal persecutions, abductions, flight (war refugees, ethnic cleansing, resulting in the creation of Diasporas) are the nature of the current world. Along with involuntary migration is the gray area between voluntary and involuntary such as fleeing regional upheavals and lack of economic possibility. Further, internal migration within one country can be just as traumatizing as international moves; rural to urban migration can be rupturing and isolating.
Migration includes legal movement through boundaries of sovereign states and illegal movement when it violates immigration laws. Both situations can engender conflict between regions and endless discussions between countries concerning obligations to each other. We are left grappling with the meaning of community and the definition of “home,” especially for those who had no choice leaving their places of origin and born speaking one language and dying speaking another. We don’t always get to choose where we live, others decide: immigration officers, border guards, governments.
Migration anthologies are rare. Migration stories seem to be resisted. Aside from fear of “the stranger,” perhaps because of the morass of misinformation. Many voluntarily leave homelands for the better lives they hope to find. However, there are many who believe that all immigrants are eager to leave their home countries, that migration is optional, permanent, automatically leads to an improved future and the ultimate goal is to assimilate to a new place. The reality is much more complex. Popular media in destination countries tends to focus not on why people immigrate, but why the immigrant has come to their particular country. There are confusions about immigration policy. Is it moral, absolute or completely based on shifting global powers? Can it be considered a personal or family-based phenomenon in view of the numerical natures of departures?
The works in this book also counter the idea of the primacy of the United States in global migration. Many in the US think the US bears the brunt of immigration when in fact, other countries host a far greater number of migrants relative to their populations. The concept of one particular country being a “nation of immigrants” undermines understanding migration within a global sphere. In spite of the world’s legal, political and cultural differences, there is much in common. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over 68.5 million human beings are constantly moving because of wars, economic, environmental or political instability. There probably hasn’t been a day in contemporary life without news of the many migrations, voluntary and involuntary, documented and undocumented.
The most important aspect of the poems in Border Lines is the sharing of feelings that transcend barriers of strangeness. The poets in the book do more than tell. They open their homes and share meals, family, experiences, languages and hopes. Over past decades, many academics such as sociologists, political scientists and historians have given views on the causes and effects of migration. The best valid, immediate and direct perspectives come from literary sources that make migrant experiences comprehensible, personal and familiar. So many believe the narrative that “all these immigrant people will hurt us.” The poems in this book tell a braver, truer story. Wherever they are from, the new neighbors bring variety. The book is an eye opener to the differences existing where the driving force of advancement is inclusion and enrichment. With the current access and interest in DNA testing, it is rare to find persons with a 100% of anything. We’re all made up of bits of somewhere. We are part of the same human trajectory.
Border Lines is organized into six sections: Crossings, Promised Land; Motherland; Labor; Language and Community. Among the symbols of migration routes, the ocean is paramount. It is impossible to understand migration out of the context of the scars of slavery and colonialism. Categories such as race, class, sexuality and legal status also profoundly affect the experience of migration. Thousands flee jungles to make a plane to America. Borders might be crossed if bribes are successful and travel by tugboat, bus, train, or on foot through deserts is formidable. The global nature of migration is captured in the poem “Refugees” by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh. He tells us, “. . . It could be Bosnia today, / Poland in September ‘39, France / eight months later, Germany in ‘45, / Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt. /. . . and always that special slouch / as if leaning toward another, better planet, / with less ambitious generals, / less snow, less wind, fewer cannons, / less History (alas, there’s no / such planet, just that slouch).”
Arrival brings difficulties of assimilation and deep yearnings for what is left behind. Senses relive turmeric, stalks of anise, tandoor and lemon to squeeze on chicken. Africans try to become Europeans. In the midst of English toast and egg cups, floats the odor of fried smelt. Pomegranates, mangos, figs, plantains, guava mix with shantytowns, lack of protein, bullets, ruined houses and desperate poverty. Different skin colors make it difficult to fit in. Consider the speaker in “From Lara – Liverpool, England, 1949 – Taiwo” by Bernadine Evaristo, “. . . Mama, in this country I am coloured. / Back home I was just me.” Distances are incomprehensible. Guilt is felt for those left behind and family photos jar. In “A Snapshot of my Father, 1928” William Heyen writes, “. . . but he’s smiling, he’s / holding hard to the ship’s rail, / and he won’t let go because he’s on his way now, / he’s on his way to America, . . . “
How to create a life once the “promised land” is reached? A grand aspiration may end up as a night watchman. Undocumented workers for years with steady jobs and families can suddenly be deported. What happens to hopeful mail order brides? When does one lose the fear of looking different? Legal immigrants might still run fearfully from police with those who are illegal. Languages of origin start to fade. Shauna Barbosa from Cape Verde is eloquent on this subject in “Broke”: “. . . Pamódi, pamódi, Vovo wants to know why I don’t visit. She’s yelling at me in Kriolu and I love how it sounds to be loved so fiercely in another language. . .” Use of a new language incorrectly can lead to punishment, exclusion, or refusal of entry into a country. The new language can alienate parents.
Alberto Rios writes in the poem “Border Lines”, “. . . The world on a map looks like the drawing of a cow / In a butcher’s shop, all those lines showing / Where to cut. / That drawing of a cow is also a jigsaw puzzle. / Showing just as much how very well / All the strange parts fit together. . .” Through these stories, there are the whispers of our common threads. Jack Mapanje in “After Celebrating our Asylum Stories at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds,” gives for our consideration, “. . . If you must, define us / Gently, how do you hope / To see the tales we bear / When you refuse to hear / The whispers we share?”
by Lory Bedikian
Stretching over the carburetor,
he shouts about the quality of his life here
compared to back home, how they stood
in line for bread, how there were no cedars
more green than those by the shore.
He could be my uncle in Syria, 1948,
a man taking in fumes, a cigarette balancing
on a fender, hands lined with grease,
saving coins in a jar for his newborn,
losing relatives to malaria, to civil war.
But today we’re in Hollywood – the palms
dry. This man speaks to me in Armenian.
He remembers working late into the Lebanese night,
the plaza’s noise of backgammon boards,
headlights beaming beyond the Mediterranean.
Now, he’s used to customers calling out
his American nickname, while he wrenches
spark plugs into place, the old country
preserved on a calendar. He’s used to this
new world of dollar bills, available parts.
I say bless him and this hand-made auto shop,
the first opening, closing of hoods, pump of pistons.
And bless the one who never made it over
the Atlantic, an arm extending into the engine,
a scar exposed, the shape of an eagle’s wing.
By Mai Der Vang
Spirit, when I flee this jungle, you must too.
I will take our silver bars, necklace dowry, and the kettle
forged from metal scraps just after the last monsoon.
Among the foliage, we must be ready to see
the half-decayed. You must not run off no matter how much
flesh you smell.
Nor should you wander to chase an old mate.
Spirit, we are in this with each other the way the night geese
in migration need the stars.
When I make the crossing, you must not be taken no matter what
the current gives. When we reach the camp,
there will be thousands like us.
If I make it onto the plane, you must follow me to the roads
and waiting pastures of America.
We will not ride the water today on the shoulders of buffalo
as we used to many years ago, nor will we forage
for the sweetest mangoes.
I am refugee. You are too. Cry, but do not weep.
We walk out the door.
My Rediscovered Land
By Andrée Chedid (1920-2011
Translated by Kathryn Kimball
I lost my land
on a day of loud alarm
on a day of tears and bitter sorrow
I found my land again
and took the orphan to heart.
To make her fruitful
I planted trees
along her pathways
renewed her green spaces
to her beauties
added numerous flowers
also a lake
with brimming water
I rediscovered my land
I walk there without sheltering.
Andrée Chedid, in her long career, published over forty volumes of poems, novels, short stories, and plays. In 2006, while suffering from the first stages of Alzheimer’s, she completed her last volume of poetry, The Fabric of the Universe. She died in 2011.
Andrée Chedid 1920-2011
Lory Bedikian’s first collection The Book of Lamenting was awarded the 2010 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. She earned an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon, where she was awarded the Dan Kimble First Year Teaching Award for Poetry. Her work has been selected several times as a finalist in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition and in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award Competition and has received grants from the Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial fund and AFFMA. Poets & Writers chose her work as a finalist for the 2010 California Writers Exchange Award. Additionally, her poetry was included in the anthology Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, Beyond Baroque Books, 2015 and chosen as a finalist in the 2015 AROHO Orlando Competition. Bedikian’s newer work has been published in Miramar, has been featured on the Best American Poetry blog as part of the "Where My Dreaming and My Loving Live: Poetry & the Body" series, is included in the Fall 2018 issue of Tin House and appears in recent issues of The Los Angeles Review and MORIA, as well as on Poets.org. Her poem “On the Way to Oshagan,” will be featured by Pádraig Ó Tuama in a forthcoming Poetry Unbound podcast.
Mai Der Vang is the author of Afterland (Graywolf Press, 2017), winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry, and a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. The recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, she served as a Visiting Writer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State. Her second poetry collection is due out by Graywolf Press in 2021.
Mai Der Vang
Kathryn Kimball has a BA in English and French, an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation, and a Ph.D. in English Literature. From 1991-2007, she taught writing and nineteenth-century British and American literature as an adjunct professor. Her translations and poems have appeared in Transference, The Galway Review, and others. A chapbook Crossings will appear in 2021 from Finishing Line Press. A practitioner of yoga for
twenty-five years, mother of six, she and her husband live in New York City.
Mihaela Moscaliuc is the author of the poetry collections Cemetery Ink (University of Pittsburgh Press 2021), Immigrant Model (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) and Father Dirt (Alice James Books, 2010), translator of Liliana Ursu’s Clay and Star (Etruscan Press, 2019) and Carmelia Leonte’s The Hiss of the Viper (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2014), editor of Insane Devotion: On the Writing of Gerald Stern (Trinity University Press, 2016), and co-editor of Border Lines: Poems of Migration (Knopf, 2020). She is associate professor of English at Monmouth University, NJ.
Michael Waters is the author of thirteen books of poems, including Caw (BOA Editions, 2020), The Dean of Discipline (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), & Celestial Joyride (BOA, 2016), & co-editor of several anthologies, including Border Lines (Knopf, 2020), Reel Verse (Knopf, 2019), & Contemporary American Poetry (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Darling Vulgarity (BOA, 2006) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize & Parthenopi: New and Selected Poems (BOA, 2001) was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry, Paris Review, Yale Review, Kenyon Review, & American Poetry Review. A 2017 Guggenheim Fellow & 2007 Fulbright Fellow, recipient of five Pushcart Prizes & fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts & NJ State Council on the Arts, Waters lives in Ocean, NJ.
Nicolette Reim is a visual artist, poet, and writer, who lives and works in New York and Atlanta.
"The Pineapple Tree" by Rolando Kattan is translated by Nicolette Reim in Border Lines.
Photo: Elias Maus