“After Being Asked if I Write the ‘Occasional Poem’” by Kimiko Hahn


After Being Asked if I Write the “Occasional Poem”

After leaving Raxruhá, after
crossing Mexico with a coyote,
after reaching at midnight
that barren New Mexico border,
a man and his daughter
looked to Antelope Wells
for asylum and were arrested. After
forms read in Spanish
to the Mayan-speaking father,
after a cookie but no water, after
the wait for the lone bus
to return for their turn, after boarding,
after the little girl’s temperature spiked,
she suffered two heart attacks,
vomited, and stopped breathing. After
medics revived the seven-year-old
at Lordsburg station, after she was flown
to El Paso, where she died,
the coroner examined
the failed liver and swollen brain. Then
Jakelin’s chest and head were stitched up
and she returned to Guatemala
in a short white coffin
to her mother, grandparents,
and dozens of women preparing
tamales and beans to feed the grieving.
In Q’eqchi’, w-e means mouth.


From The New Yorker, September 16, 2019, and published online on September 9, 2019, reprinted here with permission of the author.

Listen to the author reading her poem here.


Kimiko Hahn was born in New York, and grew up in New York and Tokyo. She earned a BA from the University of Iowa and earned an MA in Japanese Literature from Columbia University. Hahn is the author of nine books of poetry, including The Artist’s Daughter (2002), The Narrow Road to the Interior (2006), Toxic Flora (2010), and Brain Fever (2014), available for order here and on Amazon. Hahn’s work was awarded the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the American Book Award, and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. She has also received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Hahn teaches in the MFA program at Queens College and in 2016, she was elected president of the Poetry Society of America.  [Source here]


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Last month, Poetry Sunday featured Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” written to celebrate President Obama’s inauguration in 2012, and that column included a discussion on the so-called “occasional poem,” a work inspired by or written to commemorate a particular occasion. In it, Contributing Editor Amanda Moore notes that a major strength of Alexander’s poem is its departure from the tradition of occasional poems, which tend to emphasize the positive, sometimes at the expense of truth and in the worst cases devolves into empty praise, nationalism, or propaganda. Alexander’s poem makes a point of bringing in our country’s racial history and of explicitly recognizing the contribution of and price paid by black Americans in the building of our country.

Today’s poem pushes even harder on the form, using the occasional poem, identified ironically as such in the title, to “mark” an occasion, but here to mourn instead of praise it. The “occasion”  is the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a seven-year-old girl from Guatemala who died in 2018, two days after entering US custody at Antelope Wells, an isolated point of entry in New Mexico for immigrants seeking refuge from violence and economic hardship in their own countries.

Family members in Raxruhá, Jakelin’s village home in Guatemala, said she celebrated her seventh birthday the week she died and had been given her first pair of shoes for the journey. Jakelin and her father traveled more than 2,000 miles, most of it by bus, before walking the last miles along a dirt road through high desert to get to the border. [Source here]

According to reports, Jakelin became feverish at Antelope Wells while waiting for a transport bus and at some point stopped breathing. Emergency responders resuscitated her and then airlifted her to an El Paso hospital, where she died, apparently of septic shock. [Source here]

Critics of the Trump administration’s hardline approach to immigration cite Jakelin’s death as an example of the way these policies can backfire in tragic ways. In 2018, the Border Patrol apprehended 396,579 unauthorized immigrants of whom 54,690

expressed credible fear of returning to their home country, a preliminary step toward seeking asylum. That figure is far more than the 38,269 people who asked for asylum in fiscal 2018 by entering through an official port of entry where officials are restricting the number who can cross. [Source here]

Current immigration policies of, for example, intensifying border sentry postings, has reportedly increased the numbers of immigrants seeking to cross in the more remote and treacherous points between ports of entry. Antelope Wells has been called “the most remote of 43 ports of entry along the border.” [Source here]

Some might blame this tragedy on Jakelin’s parents, wondering how they could have subjected their child to the risks of such a long and dangerous journey. The answer, of course, is that no parent would do this unless the alternative—staying—was worse, a point eloquently made in the opening lines of Warsaw Shire’s widely read poem, “Home”:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats . . . .

you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay. [Source here]

Most of Jakelin’s week-long trip was by bus, and a statement released by her family’s lawyers says that her father took care to make sure she had adequate food and water during the journey. According to the Department of Homeland Security, Jakelin’s father failed to disclose on an immigration form that either he or his daughter were ill. However, the form asking that question was in English, a language he does not speak or read; his native tongue is Q’eqchi, the Mayan language referenced in the last line of the poem.

Hahn’s poem takes these issues head-on, recounting the bare-bones story of the journey and introducing subtle irony in the poem’s title and in lines 5-7: “a man and his daughter  / looked to Antelope Wells / for asylum and were arrested.” The irony continues with the next line’s flat recounting of the way the border forms were translated “in Spanish” to Jakelin’s “Mayan-speaking” father. These facts, presented without drama or outright recrimination, expose the fundamental failure of US policies to protect people seeking asylum as well as the more routine failures of everyday bureaucracy: No one noticed that Jakelin was ill or that her father was not fluent in the language of the disclosure forms; she was given a cookie but no water while waiting for transport; and she and her father had to wait a long time for the “lone bus” that was to take them to a different facility.

The tone in today’s poem is remarkably dispassionate, recounting details such as Jakelin’s symptoms without emotion or color: “after the little girl’s temperature spiked, / she suffered two heart attacks, / vomited, and stopped breathing.” The lines about her body following death and autopsy are likewise rendered without drama, allowing the facts to speak eloquently for themselves:

Jakelin’s chest and head were stitched up
and she returned to Guatemala
in a short white coffin
to her mother, grandparents

The poem’s use of plainspoken diction and overall restraint in tone are part of what makes that coffin description so devastating. There are only seven modifiers in this 27-line, 142-word poem: “barren,” “Mayan-speaking,” “lone,” “seven-year-old,” “failed,” “swollen,” and then that terrible “short white.” The restraint makes us trust the speaker’s voice as an objective witness to this event, and it acts as a tonal foil, allowing the drama and emotion to reside in the facts themselves rather than in the speaker’s emotional reaction to those facts.

The poem does use one literary device to communicate the speaker’s emotion about these events—repetition of the word “after”—both as anaphora, which repeats the word at the beginnings of lines 1 and 13, and epistrophe, which repeats it at the ends of lines 7 and 10. As noted in previous columns, repetition has roots in religion, rhetoric, and music and is a powerful, almost instinctual conveyor of human emotion. In this case, it drives home that for Jakelin, there is no “after,” and for her family, time will evermore be divided to before and now—“after” her death.

The poem’s concluding line gives Jakelin the last word—and in her native language—pointing out that the Q’eqchi word w-e “means mouth” in English. This is an invocation to witness and to acknowledge our shared responsibility for what happened to this little girl, and I am grateful to Kahn’s remarkable poem for accomplishing that necessary work with such quiet, powerful authority.



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