At the Crossing Between Words: Migrant Psalms by Darrel Alejandro Holnes

Reviewed By

If you pick up the poetry chapbook Migrants Psalms (2021) by Afro-Panamanian American poet and playwright Darrel Alejandro Holnes, the first thing that will strike you is the cover—a crimson mosaic textile in the shape of two conjoined birds peering out in opposite directions. This mola is accented with bold yellows, greens, and black—the signature artistry of the indigenous Guna people of Panama. Like the mola depicted on the cover, Holnes’ poems in Migrant Psalms are skillfully crafted works of art. Migrant Psalms is the winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, and Holnes has received awards and fellowships from Cave Canem, CantoMundo, MacDowell, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Throughout his new collection, Holnes plays on the slippage between words to forge a lament for the collective, “for the Surge,” which Holnes defines as “Central American refugees marching to the USA.” In his poem, “Amending Wall” Holnes writes:

If “crucified” means one has died

on the cross, then what is the word

in English for dying at the crossing

between countries?

In fact, the collection seems to live in in the “crossing / between countries.” This is the place where “migrant psalms” are sung. Holnes’ psalms are written for a collective “we,” but he does so by drawing from the deep well of his own intersectional experiences of religion, race, class, family, and sexuality. Specifically, by writing at the intersection of Black, queer, and immigrant experiences, Holnes complicates predominant poetic representations of Central Americans. Through his use of craft, he troubles the borders between words and translates this into his poetic through a deft use of caesuras, enjambment, and double meaning.

Migrant Psalms contains six poems. The first poem “Kyrie” is a twelve-page poem that spans the first half the collection. The fragmented form of “Kyrie” resembles waves shattering on a shoreline. Holnes also replicates this form in “Naturalization” and in the last piece, “The 21st Century Poem.” Together these three poems are the pillars of the book. The other poems found in between (“Poder”; “OTM, or Other Than Mexican”; and “Amending Wall”) are shorter and employ a more straight-edged form. The use of these two diametrically opposed forms creates a surprising and satisfying sense of fluctuation and movement within the short length of the book.

When I read “Kyrie,” I was struck by the poem’s dynamism. Holnes’ publisher, Northwestern University Press, describes this poem as “a coming-to-America chronicle that spans three years in Texas, modeled after the liturgical Christian prayer Kyrie Eleison (Lord, Have Mercy).” While this description is correct, it doesn’t touch on the range of themes and influences in the poem, which includes gender fluidity, race violence, the challenges of immigrating, nuclear anxiety, the omnipresence of iPhones and social media, and the dominance of American pop culture (e.g. Britney Spears, Anna Nicole Smith, and Perez Hilton).

In the first lines of “Kyrie,” there is a palpable tension between the “you” that cares and the “I” that doesn’t. At first, I assumed the “you” was a direct address to the reader, and it can certainly be read that way. However, upon further reading into the poem, the “you” appeared to be self-reflexive. Rather than just a direct address to the reader, the “you” is representative of the speaker’s fractured selves, split in the temporal passage of migration. The speaker that first immigrated is not the same speaker three years later. These first lines read:

It’s 2005 and the pope is dead.

You don’t care but I do because I’m Catholic.

Bush has just been re-elected.

I am new to Texas and America.

Houston is in the Bible Belt

        my father used to beat me with when I was bad.

I am scared          to pull Christ through my belt loops,

        he never kept my pants up back home.

Holnes’s keen use of double meaning adds even more depth to the poem. The word “belt” here accumulates new meaning in each consecutive line. It becomes dense with social, familial, and political meaning.

Later, in the third section of the poem, Holnes writes:

I’m happy to be a man;

        my wanting badly to be Molly is the closest I’ve come

        to wanting a sex-change, you could say

        if you want to be provocative.

                I’m talking about my wanting to get inside an American

                        like drugs do, so deep I can’t be


“Molly” is loaded here as queer possibility and an allusion to the drug ecstasy. Furthermore, getting “inside an American / like drugs do” highlights an experience of deportation anxiety. The statement is especially poignant in a context where American demand for drugs drives the Latin American drug trade and violence, creating the condition causing some immigrants to flee.

“Poder” marks a significant shift in the book—from an individual “I” to the “I” as part of a collective, part of the Central American migrant community. This expansion to the collective continues in the following poem “OTM, or Other Than Mexican,” which juxtaposes Mexican Spanish next to Panamanian Spanish in couplets like, “Other than que pedo / We que xopa,” and, “Other than amiguin / We fren.” As poet Ed Roberson explains in the forward, “‘OTM’ is a blanket acronym used by ICE to designate Spanish-speaking persons as ‘other than Mexican’ immigrants.” By appropriating the term, Holnes subverts the American tendency to homogenize Latin Americans, while also asserting a distinctly Panamanian way of speaking.

In “Naturalization,” Holnes shifts focus back to the individual speaker; however, even when the “I” is primarily imposed, the “we” is still hovering in the background. This plays out in the speaker’s tumultuous relationship with his mother. The lines in this poem are not rigid steel rods, but rather molten metal bending and twisting across the white space. For example, here Holnes bends lines in the opening:

I haven’t yet come out to my fam

        and I’m dating a white man named Jack.

Everyone has a part of themselves they keep private,

        these days the secret is their issue with race

        or desire.           Mamá always wanted

to be American, but she’d read in Essence magazine

        about how its Black women

        were the least married in the country

        because ballplayers preferred white women on their arms.

Can you hear her crying

        as I play              ball             with my white boyfriend?

In the fourth and fifth lines, “race” bends into “desire,” which bends into “wanted.” In line eleven, the line bends on the word “ball,” which serves as a pun for playing basketball, male genitalia, and perhaps also, a reference to drag ball culture. Haunting the collection, the “you” reappears here forging an inescapable confrontation with the speaker’s reality.

Later in the poem, Holnes uses enjambments to create surprising juxtapositions:

                                                                   The American Dream

is not a fantasy. It’s as real as         the resurrection

        of turkey on Thanksgiving             and the healing properties of      apple pie.

The American Dream hovers in the middle of the line, casting a spotlight on itself. Although “The American Dream” has particular associations within mainstream culture and among immigrants to the United States, Holnes destabilizes our assumptions as we move from fragment to fragment.

The book closes with “The 21st Century Poem.” In this poem, the speaker navigates his Black queer identity in a social landscape where his “ex-boyfriend is using [his] pics on Grindr,” “Atlanta has the same HIV rate as Zimbabwe,” his mother warns him of “the disease,” and “Make America Great Again! / is a sexually transmitted infection/disease.” This is ripe material for the speaker’s existential musing:

But maybe in flesh, I am already an avatar

of my ancestors, a great ancient             ghost

        caught in a new skin, caught in a smart phone

                a Tupac                hologram               on tour,

                a rerun of a foreign TV show                 you binge watch

        lost in an American eternity           of endless choices on Netflix.

Here the “you” that is threaded through chapbook, remerges in this final poem. This moment feels like the end of a play, right before the curtain comes down. The actor stares the audience in the eye—shattering the fourth wall, and we’re implored to see better. Holnes challenges us to view our realities as multifaceted and dynamic—there are no neat boxes, no easy definitions. Words are not even just words in this collection; like borders, they are fluid and meant to be transgressed.

Shyanne Figueroa Bennett is a Brooklyn poet with roots in Panama, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Her work has been published in various journals and magazines, including Green Mountains Review, Oversound, The Acentos Review, Tribes, and The New York Quarterly. She graduated with an MFA in Writing from Columbia University, where she was a recipient of a Chair’s Fellowship and a Creative Writing Teaching Fellowship. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Panama to support her creative work. More from this author →