Poetry at the Border 2: Cynthia Hogue

orconsPoet and translator Cynthia Hogue on how borders work:

Events today around border issues have brought back personal experience so eerily and uncannily as to seem to me the return of the repressed. The events recounted and per/formed in the excerpted poem that follows, “The Green Card Is Not Green,” happened twelve years ago to my immigrant husband and me, when we were navigating the complicated bureaucracy of post-9/11 legal immigration. I think that more Americans today are aware of the challenges—of late the impossibilities and indignities—of any attempt to immigrate to the U.S., than Americans were so long ago. I, at least—whose first husband had actually been deported for illegally immigrating to the U.S., but courteously, all-but-on the honor code, asked to leave the country at a time of his choosing—had a rude awakening discovering how things had changed in the decades since my first marriage. I naively thought that as an American, I could call Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) and sort things out. No, indeed. Even for a native English speaker, the new Department of Homeland Security was a maze. I called again and again, only to end up confused and frustrated. My husband could not do it at all because he could not yet understand English spoken by Americans (including naturalized citizens). Or perhaps it was the bureaucratic diction and tone. I’m not sure. He could not understand, and although I am an English professor, I discovered to my shock and horror that I had trouble too. 

How in the world could someone who had no translator available, who was coming to the U.S. believing the glossy representations of the freedoms for all purveyed around the world, manage even to receive the information they needed?  

The poet of the Southern Border, born on the U.S. side of the Mexican-American border in Nogales, Arizona, Alberto Álvaro Ríos, observes that the border connects as well as separates. The power asserted at borders, however, certainly at U.S. borders today, tries to stabilize identities into “us” and “them,” and to separate off those who are categorized as “them” in order to impose an order and even a uniformity on those who are categorized as “us.” But as my poem tries to explore, borders are artificial and identities are nothing if not fluid at borders, which expose that fluidity as well as try to impose labels. Borders destructure “us” and all that tries to bestow order and clarity, exposing how disorder borders order. Borders are liminal zones, literally betwixt and between categories. In the terrain of suddenly visible edges and interfaces, the speaker of this poem issues a critical re-characterization of the newly marshaled, militarized border that the State, our State, had created. The State discovered all those years ago that borders disorder order, to invoke a poem by Harryette Mullen. The American citizen wife I was twelve years ago trusts that all the imperial will being marshaled to close U.S. borders will be similarly disordered, frustrated, enacting re-visionary connections it could not imagine were possible (because the imperial will lacks imagination) and did not intend (because, although authoritarian, it is blind).

Cynthia_The Green Card Is Not Green (003) hogue heuving me

The attached excerpt of “The Green Card is Not Green” preserves the poem’s visual play. Below is a still shorter passage to give you a taste, but you should really check out the whole book Or ConsequenceHogue is one of our best literary artisans of gaps and erasures, but for all her interest in pain and silence, I find enormous light and peace at the center of her work.

from “The Green Card is Not Green”:

A border that divides also connects,
the buffer imagined, arbitrary,
opening where one can cross the line
and become, quite suddenly, other.

I enter a strange country
and myself become strange. Étrangère.
At that moment, my Resident Alien husband becomes Citizen.
We are, between us,
two beings of determinate but shifting identities,
always in transit, self-shifting,
one of us word-less,
one of us defined by prohibitions

expressed in abstractions
all having specific consequences:

You are invited to submit
an application for an extension
of the red tape in which to encase
your green card.

You are not permitted to cross our borders
without an endorsement that the conditions
on your green card have been approved
for removal.


The permeable border is lethal without endorsement.

I wanted to endorse you but the Homeland must authorize your petition.

You will pay x and then go to z. You cannot go to y.

You can call us but the phone number we give you has been disconnected

(you will have to call to find this out).

A receipt must be with all questions, and we will tell you that you can not ask questions

in person without an appointment although you can

(you will have to come here to find this out).

If you make an appointment, we guarantee the directions we give you

will cause you to go to the wrong place,

and then we will have to say:

You have to go back to where you came from.

If it is happiness you are free to pursue it but there not here.

If it is unhappiness you must dwell there.

If you cross our borders we will hold you without charge,

for a time to be announced at some time

to be determined in the future.

It takes a heap of loafing to write a post

You know those projects kids get in school that are really projects for the parents, where you take clay and macaroni and pipe cleaners and end up with a gorgeous topological map of Virginia? Those assignments always filled me with dread, because I did not have the skill or will to do them myself, as some parents did; teach my daughter to do them, as a better parent would; or fail to care what people thought of my failure at the above responsibilities. I was much relieved, therefore, when the dioramas faded out. I CAN teach a kid to write a decent paper, when called upon, although my daughter is pretty much past the need for assistance.

I was alarmed, then, when she brought homework for me this spring break. She’d just read Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and was supposed to get a friend or family member to write a brief pretend autobiography of her, then reflect on the experience. “You don’t have to imitate Stein’s style,” she said. “Oho!” I yelled and dropped my own homework in favor of this much more interesting assignment. “Oh, no,” she said.


The Autobiography of Madeleine W. Gavaler, by Lesley Wheeler

I was born in Fishersville, Virginia, and wherever that is, there is no there there. I have in consequence always preferred living in a cosmopolitan environment but it is difficult to find a cosmopolitan environment and live in it. I conceived in my infancy a profound dislike of fish, creatures with which the fishers of Fishersville were possibly also disenchanted, since that village is bereft of waterways.

My mother was a quiet charming woman overfond of poetry. My father came from workaholic stock. His father was a research chemist with a specialty in superconductivity. His father’s father mined coal in Western Pennsylvania after escaping Slovakia via snowy passes in the Tatras. My father was a loud charming man fascinated by superheroes. This is sufficient information about the patriarchy.

I myself have no liking for coal or super items but have always enjoyed the pleasures of bagels and fruit. I am fond of paintings, hiking, coffee shops, and Russian history. I like a view but when confronted with beauty I burst into tears and can no longer perceive it.

I led in my youth the gently neglected existence of professors’ children. I joined my school’s academic team the better to study my fellows’ lack of substantive interest in art and literature. I was also elected to the National Honor Society the better to observe how members’ parents bought them out of public service. My greatest adventure was a semester attending high school in Wellington, New Zealand where fellow students berated me for United States racism and economic policy. Upon my return Virginia friends drove me to mountain swimming holes and taunted me with my fear of fish.

We were all living comfortably together with our disparate attitudes towards wildlife when the acceptance from Wesleyan University arrived. There was at that time a great deal of email coming and teenagers going. My mother and father gnashed their teeth quietly and then permitted me to go and I came to Middletown where no one required me to eat fish or indeed have any interactions with fish. There I met Nabokov, Plato, and Oscar Wilde and a bell rang in me although I was exasperated by their genius. I met many other important people and Instagrammed their book covers alongside beverages. In this way my new full life began.

Toklas fake


Poetry at the Border: Jane Satterfield

I hereby launch an intermittent feature of this blog–“Poetry at the Border.” Each post in this series will focus on a poet who worries some kind of threshold. Borders of various kinds are always relevant to poetry–crossings in genre, sound, language, and psychological states as well as of national/ cultural identities and traditions–but this topic has assumed so much political urgency lately that it never leaves my mind.

satterfield bookI chose Jane Satterfield to kick off this feature because I’m reading her excellent new collection, Apocalypse Mix, available now from Autumn House. I’ve been following Jane’s work for years, admiring not only her verse collections but her inventive prose in Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond (Demeter Press). (Jane and I share similar transatlantic family connections and semiformalist lyric dress sense, plus she writes about motherhood and rock’n’roll–what’s not to love?) Apocalypse Mix is a book about tricky proximities, the foremost probably being the author’s childhood near Andrews Air Force base, as the daughter of a British mother and an American air force reservist. Many poems address war and migrancy head-on. The porous boundary between past and present is also of urgent interest and, more surprisingly, between human and other-than human animals, in an arresting sequence about the military use of dogs, pigeons, horses, and other creatures during the Great War (“Bestiary for a Centenary”).

I asked Jane to describe a border that’s important to her and to her writing, and explain why. Here’s her response and a poem.

Years before the current travel ban that continues to play out in the courts and in the IMG_2289.JPGnews, I drafted an early version of this poem. I couldn’t shake the memory of the summer day in London in 1995 when I filed for an American passport for my UK-born daughter, and a stranger—a Muslim woman whose command of English was limited—reached across the cultural divide with a kindness that shows what unites us as women, daughters, mothers. As a dual US/UK citizen myself—I’m the daughter of an American service man and British mother of Irish descent—I often look at ways that this legacy plays out in the maternal body and in the larger body politic.

The borders we draw on maps and carry in our minds can empower us or forge division.

Although we gravitate toward tribes that signal safety and belonging, the human story is the story of migration—one where crossing borders both real and metaphorical reshapes our collective destiny.


I had a day’s Underground pass, forms
to be filed for your passport. Soon,
we’d fly back to the States
if your paperwork was in order.
Your father stood watch in the embassy, ready
to call us in when needed, while I wheeled
you ‘round the garden in summer’s
equatorial heat. I shifted the sunshade
over your face.
Down the path, a stranger neared,
shopping bags in her hand, head scarf
adorned with flowers, petals scattering,
light and dark.

In this time before fear was everywhere,
what was the reason she caught my gaze?


Nearly two decades on, my screen flickers with images
of crowds and crusades, flags set aflame,
placards facing off outside the same American embassy:
“Afghanistan’s the graveyard of soldiers!” “If you want
Sharia, move to Saudi!” Rage tilts toward
extremes. Citizens are advised to review
the Worldwide Caution, stay current
with media coverage. The camera pans across
the roiling crowd, one side against the other: Londoners
who’d banish all immigrants, Muslim protesters
garbed in white.
                                   How to speak
of what we share, what separates us?

If there’s a woman in that crowd,
I don’t see her,

but I remember the day
I waited with the pram, how you blinked
as I pulled back the sunshade and you tugged
your tiny bonnet, fist clenched unfurling.
In time’s reflecting pool,
water gathers, builds to spill . . . That stranger,
alone, hesitant, reached in to touch your face—
What was her past? A dream of mosquito nets,
acoustic flashings of rain? The cardamom pods
she’d bought for her mother?
She saw
a mum with a pram and neared, touching
the face of a stranger’s baby, smiling
as she said beautiful,
as she said blessed.

*There are some indented half-lines in this poem that WordPress won’t indent–apologies for the vagaries of blog formatting–but I trust this poem’s acoustic flashings still scintillate.

Jane Satterfield has published five books, including Apocalypse Mix, winner of the 2016 Autumn House Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of an NEA poetry fellowship, the 49th Parallel Poetry Prize, Ledbury Festival Poetry Prize, and more. With Laurie Kruk, she is co-editor of the multigenre anthology Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland (Demeter Press). Satterfield is married to poet Ned Balbo and lives in Baltimore where she is an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland.

Spirals, inspirations

I’m returning to a beloved book this week, Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain (2009), for a class on place, borders, and migration in contemporary poetry. Meehan’s collection inspired a lot of my thinking about place in verse. I suddenly remembered, as I wandered among the poems again, that Meehan has inspired some rockin’ visual art, too. Here’s a meditation I wrote last April-ish about Meehan and painter David Harrison–originally for another source, but since it was never granted residency, I’m giving it asylum here.

david-harrisonFor the “Poem in a Landscape” feature of Ecotone 19, I contributed an essay on place, time, and loss inspired by Paula Meehan’s “Death of a Field.” It turns out I’m not the only artist galvanized by Meehan’s incantatory poem. David Harrison’s recent exhibition “Flowers of Evil” at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery featured an oil painting responding to her verses. A book containing the painting’s image found its way to me this winter—from London via Dublin to Virginia.

I love the way Harrison reimagines Meehan’s pocket universe. The poet powerfully conjures a literary afterlife for a field about to be lost to development, but the painter’s translation of the field possesses its own strong magic. Further, Harrison is, like Meehan, preoccupied with the porous borders between worlds.

In the Flowers of Evil book, Harrison tells interviewer Peter Doig that the exhibition as a whole was inspired by a childhood copy of Cicely Barker’s 1923 book Flower Fairies. Nowadays, he observes, the toxic flowers that preoccupy him are “called weeds—vilified. I thought of doing a modern version of flower fairies, using flowers that are ultra poisonous but also beneficial to mankind. People talk about the spread of these plants as if they are a threat, well, I thought I’d juxtapose them with the spread of these horrific modern housing estates and executive developments that are destroying the world.”

Meehan’s poem in particular influenced a painting called “Death of a Field (Belladonna Fairy).” It features a central stalk of blooming nightshade—a plant not even mentioned among Meehan’s lists of wild herbs. The upper left part of the painting shows a field under a bit of blue sky, but that peacefulness quickly leads down, past a gate, to a sign declaring some developer’s construction plans. From there, things get hallucinogenic. A dizzy spiral emanates from the belladonna plant, and an entity with gauzy pink wings presides over the painting’s right half. Multiple perspectives jostle for dominance.

Harrison walks an interesting line between realism and abstraction. His flower fairy—a mediating spirit—has a realistic head but an abstracted torso, her circular breasts overwritten by five-pointed stars. While some botanical detail, too, is naturalistic, Harrison has painted in an allegorical cartoon of the wrong kind of progress: a businessman’s silhouette rushes past a spider-web towards a death’s head skull.

Harrison also draws our attention to the medium itself. Every creation, he hints, is built over its own dark underworld. “Death of a Field (Belladonna Fairy)” is painted in oil on cardboard, with some of the surface torn away, leaving a crimson seam. “It’s a nod to Dada,” Harrison says. “I love the idea of cheap, throwaway objects and materials…I love the fact that underneath there’s a rib cage, almost. It’s like you’re working with a living material.” It’s not that the ribbed cardboard world is more real than the surface fantasy conjured in brilliant oils. Instead, they coexist, interdependent, enriching each other.

For me, the spiral in the painting’s center just keeps radiating out with new associations, the way Meehan’s original poem does. I think of the triple spiral from prehistoric Irish art, such as in the Newgrange tomb not far from Dublin. The spiral is a natural shape associated with curling ferns and other signs of vitality. Yet it’s also the painting’s most cartoonish element, reminiscent of those squiggles Mort Walker christened “spurls”—comic-strip shorthand for intoxication or disorientation. The fairy’s head and eyes repeat in the arms of the spiral, as if consciousness is dispersed through the plant’s hallucinogenic action. Where am I? the painting asks. Is there a more important question? ∞

Where you are now, by the way, is a redesigned “Taking Poetry Personally.” The header photograph is a retaining wall in my Virginian backyard, to represent my current obsession with boundaries and borders. More on that soon, closer to winter’s finish line and the cool edge of a North American spring.