David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 21 Poems that Shaped America (Pt. 3): “Prospective Immigrants Please Note”

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To become an American citizen no loyalty oath is required. There is no coerced allegiance test. You could have spent decades speaking or writing highly critical words of the government and never be asked by what right you do so. While you live here your offspring are Americans just by virtue of being born here (I wonder, how many other countries are as generous?). The American Revolution is one of the few revolutions over the last three hundred years that still resonates with people worldwide, not least because of the following tenacious idea:

We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

No Oxford comma for Thomas Jefferson’s idea that democracy connotes an arc of perennial change, thank you very much. We take the phrase to indicate a list: 1) life 2) liberty 3) the pursuit of happiness. Minus the serial comma, if you will, the phrase can be read as a definition, that liberty and the pursuit of happiness are what’s meant by life—as in “among these are my parents, Stephen and Rosalyn.” As in “among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Much of American regard for individuality and multiculturalism begins in this sentence. The trajectory of the progressive movement in American history relies on the phrase as a cornerstone.

Speaking of cornerstones: I have not paid attention much to the details of the opprobrious suggestion heard on the campaign trail this year to build a Berlin Wall-style barricade along the southern border of the United States. When the Republican nominee for president makes his cockeyed boast that this wall will cover 1,000 miles and natural obstacles will take care of the rest, when he sounds off that this wall will provide us with “a very strong border that stops people and drugs from illegally pouring into our country… and Mexico will pay for it,” when he pops off, as he did last week, that “we’re going to stop that poison from flowing into our country,” I know that a low point of humiliation has been reached. I expect Donald Trump will lose next month, so I expect his promise to erect a wall will soon enough be forgotten, even if the idea is destined to be succeeded by an even more contemptuous one from the next xenophobe with access to 24/7 cable news and talk radio.

Bear in mind, as Todd Miller reports on Tomdispatch.com and reprinted in Mother Jones over the summer, “even as the zero tolerance border enforcement program known as Operation Streamline has unfolded” over the last eleven years with captured men and women “in groups of seven or eight, their heads bowed submissively, their bodies weighed down by shackles and chains around wrists, waists, and ankles [and with a border state judge who] hands out the requisite prison sentences in quick succession—180 days, 60 days, 90 days, 30 days, [with] 750,000 sentences of this sort… handed down since Operation Streamline was launched in 2005,” we know that for the sake of economic opportunity and political refuge, people of all faiths and nationalities will attempt to enter the United States every year, legally or illegally, as they have for generations one way or another.

Let me therefore recommend that you consider the history of American xenophobia. Whether trying women as witches in colonial Salem, passing the Alien and Sedition acts in Congress, or forcing Japanese Americans into internment camps, practitioners have shown a natural talent for psychological combat. It is, you may say, an emotionalized campaign of wearing down reasonable analysis. The argument begins with intense, irrational fear of people from other countries, of people who are not white Protestants or what passes as such, or of people who are simply thought of as different. Consider: Ellis Island is seen mythically as a monument to immigration, but it was often a barrier—a wall, one might say—used to repel undesirables. Despite Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, “The New Colossus,”—

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

emma-lazarus—the federal government has been implementing strict laws to keep the masses out. Consider further: When Congress passed one of its most discriminatory immigration laws, the Chinese Exclusion and Reconstruction Act of 1892 that restricted Chinese labor, prohibited naturalization, and set in law deportation procedures against illegal Chinese immigrants, it did so after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars states from denying any person equal protection of law. Since discrimination formally reserved for African Americans was declared unlawful by the Fourteenth Amendment, the nation turned its racial animosity to a different minority whose immigration status made such treatment more socially acceptable and legally defensible. The Know Nothings of the 19th century also sought to shut out Irish and German Catholic immigrants who were blamed for threatening the livelihoods of American Protestants. Today’s Fox News supremacists who broadcast discriminatory views against Latinos and Muslims and Asians are little different.

The worst racist fear in this country always has to do with letting in too many foreigners who might breed with “real Americans” and bring an insufficient belief in American values and threaten the future of the Republic. In Adrienne Rich’s brilliant poem, “Prospective Immigrants Please Note,” she shapes a more honestly complex perspective on immigrant experience by speaking from the other side of the border that an immigrant has previously crossed:

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself makes no promises.
It is only a door.

Rich’s poem is not just shaping a view of what might be called the hyphenated American immigrant experience, including difficulty speaking and learning English, securing work, securing housing, figuring out transportation, overcoming cultural barriers, raising children and helping them succeed as they attempt to assimilate but also struggle not to shed facets of their home culture or language. By my reading, the idea of immigration in Rich’s poem, published in 1962, is also a metaphor for any manner of border crossings from one consciousness to another, including sexual consciousness and gender consciousness and spiritual consciousness—and all the ways that we emerge from one state of being into another, the very makings of identity. When Rich writes of individual agency—“The door itself / makes no promises. / It is only a door”—she is lauding a particular universal experience as much as it is an American one. By that I mean, for instance, European immigration questions today are different from America’s. Europe’s population is aging more rapidly than ours, and it has a lower birthrate. Plus there’s the fact that many immigrants to Europe come from Muslim countries. The political fear in Europe is that these new immigrants bring with them a stratagem of Islamization. On the one hand, we see in the United States a similar chilling toward Muslims. On the other hand the largest number of immigrants to America recently, the people most are alarmed about, cross the border into Texas and California from Mexico. According to recent Pew Center Research estimates, five facts of Mexican immigration are salient:

  • There were 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants in the US in 2014, a total unchanged from 2009 and accounting for 3.5% of the nation’s population.
  • Mexicans made up 52% of all unauthorized immigrants in 2014, though their numbers had been declining in recent years.
  • The number of unauthorized immigrants from nations other than Mexico grew by 325,000 since 2009, to an estimated 5.3 million in 2014.
  • Six states accounted for 59% of unauthorized immigrants in 2014: California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois.
  • A rising share of unauthorized immigrants have lived in the US for at least a decade.

 

Which gets you back to Adrienne Rich’s poem that shapes what we know to be undeniable about immigration and American xenophobia. By giving you the experience of the former immigrant, Rich leads us to ask, what does it mean to have immigrated? It means to remember where you came from. It means to remember what you or your immigrant ancestors have confronted. It means to braid your values into the fabric of American culture. It also means to appreciate those who decide not to immigrate, who embrace their lives outside of America, who hold their position. And it means to understand the desire someone might feel deciding to leave—a nation or consciousness or set of codes—and arriving somewhere new in that famous pursuit.

 

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This is part 3 of a 21 part series. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →