Poetry Sunday: “Immigrants,” by Judith Ayn Bernhard

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
I found “Immigrants” the way I love finding poems for this column, just heard and was moved by it. As the current Marin County Poet Laureate, I’m organizing a series of community open mics in Marin libraries on topics of current (or enduring) political interest. My project is “Poetry as Sanctuary,” the idea is that reading and writing poetry can provide an emotional, psychological, and even spiritual haven from the things that upset us, including the turbulence of current events. Themes for open mics so far have included “Peace,” “Gender,” and the one where today’s poem surfaced, “Celebrating Immigration and Diversity.” The open mics are a way for people to showcase their own work, to vent, and to share their feelings and ideas on topics that feel vital today.
I’ve been interested to see, in each case, that the poems do not always fall lockstep into the “plan” I had for each reading. Because Marin has a substantial population of immigrants and refugees from Central and South America, I expected a large turnout of Latino/Latina readers, or at least of poems about the difficulties these populations are facing under the current administration. That was naïve of me, because the open mic took place at the Marin Civic Center complex that also houses our courts and a sheriff’s office. Still, we did get some representation from that community and heard poems, today’s among them, on that topic. We also heard from immigrants from Finland, the Azores, India, Vietnam, and the Middle East, and a poem honoring diversity of species, in this case an endangered turtle. One reader shared an excerpt from a novel about a childhood experience of attending a mosque in India, and another read sonnets about the under-sung women in the orbit of the prophet Mohammed during his life. I loved hearing Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” a sonnet whose lines are engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. [That poem was featured in this column last July and you can read it here.] Someone shared a short essay on the times and how they are different (and the same) from the Sixties, and someone else the moving story of a young student whose clay sculpture opened a window on her experience of losing her entire family on a voyage by boat to this country. As with all open mics, there were some surprises—a rap poem about Emily Dickinson, for example—in the end I thought of the reading as an enactment of our topic, a diamond whose many facets each reflected a different slant of light on the topic of diversity.
What I love about today’s poem is its sound and structure, and how those two elements work together to deliver, with simple eloquence, a truth that feels like something we already know. Remember that my first encounter with the poem was not on the page; I heard it read. What struck me then was the power of simple repetition. “The [blank] is from [blank]” construct, repeated so many times, accretes evidence and weight for the argument that America is its immigrants. Other effective repetitions include the anaphoric (occurring at the beginnings of lines or sentences) “So is” and the repetition of the self-rhyming phrase “from somewhere else” six times in the last two stanzas. Notice how that last phrase accomplishes syntactically what the world cannot: unity. In the poem, the speaker makes us aware that just about everyone around us is from another country: El Salvador, Vietnam, Palestine, Mexico, Iran, then blends them into one term, “somewhere else,” a vessel (or pot!) that holds them all. Here is an example of the magic powers of poetry, the writer accomplishing on the page what she’d like to see in the world. Remember, if we can imagine something, and especially if we can say it, it has the potential to be real.
On the page, “Immigrants” consists of six long-line tercets followed by a single line, all rendered in unmetered and unrhymed free verse. Diction is vernacular, the speaker in a casual conversation with us. The tone is interesting, the slightest bit confrontational. The poem sounds like a spirited rejoinder, a response made, perhaps, to a xenophobic remark, piece of legislation, or executive order. The point that we = immigrants = America is made forcefully but not stridently, the speaker simply pointing out facts that by themselves make the case for open borders. These facts have integrity and do not feel “fake.” What gives them authenticity is their specificity, variety, and everyday quality; we are given a guy sitting next to us in a restaurant, a manicurist, a jeweler, a gardener, a car wash attendant, an insurance agent, a dentist, an optometrist, an accountant, a dry cleaner, a waiter, a student, an old woman walking, a musician, and a sales clerk. We are also given, very subtly, their families: a wife, a husband, a sister, etc. These are working people, the backbone of our nation. They are people we all depend on every day and it does not take much extension to consider that our nation and its economy also depends on them every day.
Near the end of the poem, the speaker implicates herself:

She is from somewhere else and you are from somewhere else and I am
from somewhere else and they are from somewhere else.

What a powerful run of repetitions! It accomplishes something wonderful, merging what Martin Buber called the “I/thou” dichotomy and bringing us all together into one pot. I’m not Native American and unless you are, we all came from somewhere else in the not-so-distant past, our ancestors seeking these shores as a refuge from oppression or just a place to build a better life for our children. We don’t really need to make a case for immigrants, the poem says, because we all are immigrants, and America is us, its immigrants. The only question now is whether we will try to keep it all for ourselves, a stagnation course, or continue to welcome new lifeblood into our country.
The last line of the poem is the closest it comes to rebuke. Prior to this point the speaker is just stating facts, and facts that feel irrefutable. Who in America can’t count immigrants among the people we encounter—and need—every day? In the last line, though, the speaker reminds us that America stands for something. We all were taught in school to revere our great “melting pot” and that diversity is a uniquely American ideal. It’s one that I and many others worry we are not living up to today.]]>

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