Poetry Sunday: “Lament for Airports,” by Persis Karim

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Our administration is slamming the door on the immigrants who feed this country’s once-vaunted great melting pot and seems bent on deporting hundreds of thousands more who came here seeking asylum, shelter, and a better life for their children. Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on, no one can deny that families will be divided and lives uprooted and even lost as efforts are ramped up to remove immigrants (whatever that even means, since unless you are Native American, we are all descended from immigrants) from our communities. You may not notice it at first—a child stops coming to your child’s class in school, a teacher, co-worker, or employee fails to show up, a friend cannot be reached—but in the long run the effects of these deportations will be felt by us all, and I fear the human cost and the loss to this country will be irreparable.

The ban on travel to and from seven Muslim-majority countries and its temporary curtailment by the Ninth Circuit District Court recently brought these issues into sharp relief, and people turned out at airports across the country to protest the ban. I chose this week’s poem for the way it gives us a personal lens through which to view all that and for the way it operates, not by ranting and raving against the current government, but instead by taking the high road of appealing to our better selves.

First, a word about the poet, a writer who I met through a friend and fellow writer who is, like Karim, a refugee from Iran’s current extremist regime. Iran is famous for its poets and writers, and we are fortunate to have that rich cultural infusion into our literary arts. We are poorer without, for example, films like the Oscar-winning The Salesman whose Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi recently boycotted the Academy Awards celebration in protest of the ban. I’ve been attending readings featuring or organized by Karim almost since I first joined the Bay Area literary community ten years ago. The most recent was a panel at this year’s AWP (our nation’s largest annual writer’s conference) entitled “The Iranian Diaspora Writers as Cultural Ambassadors: Engaging Iran after the Nuclear Agreement.” The room was jammed, and we were riveted by readings by an array of Iranian writers, all of whom happened to be women. I was struck by many things I heard that day, but what haunts me was the assertion that as bad as things are now, some Iranian immigrants take comfort from the fact that the media is finally aware of and reporting on the discrimination, resentment, mistrust, and even abuse that has been their daily lot in this country for decades. We need look no further than recent news to see horrific examples, like the shooting of two Indian Nationals by a man who, apparently believing them to be Iranian, shouted racial slurs and “Get out of my country” before he opened fire.

We are hearing and some of us are engaging in protest about an array of issues now, and I’m guessing some of you are tired of it. Maybe you come to poetry and even to this column as a refuge against the troubles now roiling our country. If so, please read on, because one reason I chose today’s poem is that it accomplishes the goal of good political poetry—changing the hearts and minds of its readers—in a surprisingly positive way. While reading “Lament for Airports,” I was struck, initially, by how the poem seemed to be spending so much time praising airports. Look at all the positive images inhabiting its first few lines. Airports are where “we imagine our flight,” “elate at the arrival” of beloved family members, and leave for vacations in warmer climes. The first sense that the poem may be more than just a litany of praise comes with “it is no longer home,” followed by the chilling description of a homeland that must be abandoned “out of fear.” Afterwards, the poem returns to a description and praise of airports as places where we “anticipate” departures and arrivals, “bear gifts . . . and histories” and “express our love before we ascend into the ether.”

The second stanza widens the lens to view airports in general and almost in the abstract, places that “connect[s] us” briefly in distance and time, shrinking the planet and provide a place of commonality “without suspicion or names / or the need for a passport.” This is the moment when I realized the poem was referring to past, not contemporary, airports and understood why it is indeed a lament and not an homage or ode.

The lament is for the way airports once were and a recognition that, prior to 9/11 and even more so prior to the ban, airports were very different. They were portals to possibility, places to come home to, and places where we could, briefly, forget the differences that divide us. Now, though, airports have become “gates” barring entry, and that “strange intimacy” we once felt for our fellow travelers regardless of their country of origin has changed. What once rescued us from the “blindness” of our prejudices now challenges us as never before.

I spent some time puzzling over the words “tests us.” How does that hail-fellow-traveler-well-met intimacy we have all experienced while traveling “test us?” My first stab at understanding this was from my own point of view, an American citizen not personally affected by the ban. Well, I thought, if I feel a personal connection with someone I later witness being detained or harassed, I’m forced to see those actions differently, as things that could equally happen to me or the people I love. You can’t accept an apple or orange from your seatmate on the plane one minute and then feel nothing when, in the next, you see them being treated like a criminal. So, the poem seems to be saying that the easy companionship we can fall into with fellow travelers now tests our mettle. Then I started thinking about this scenario from what I imagine to be the point of view of a person directly affected by the ban, and I began to appreciate how the goodwill an immigrant traveler may otherwise feel for an American fellow traveler is, in these dark and uncertain times, being sorely tried.
I appreciate this poem for its straightforward diction and its music in the form of internal rhyme and alliteration, but most of all for the way it delivers its message by showing us our better selves, what we were before 2017 and could be again. Writer Ann Pancake talks about the obligation of writers to “dream forward,” to imagine possibilities for a better future. This poem dreams forward by dreaming backward, by remembering a time in the not-too-distant past when the world was a more open and brighter place, and I like to think that it keeps open the possibility that airports in it will one day again represent places of possibility and reunion, and not places of exclusion and fear.

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  • Susan F. March 28, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    At first I was tickled to envision the “Love Actually” airport scenes in the wonderful poem. (Director Richard Curtis was inspired by being stuck in LAX airport and watching people greet each other at Arrivals. So, at Heathrow Airport, he had a hidden camera where he filmed travelers’ embraces for a week and a half. These poignant candid scenes are shown at the movie’s end.) Upon closer inspection, I realized the deeper meaning of the poem and the message that it sends isn’t so candy-coated. The airport experience for immigrants has become alarming and truly lamentable.

  • Tamam March 26, 2017 at 10:03 pm

    Wonderful poem. Thanks, Becky!

  • Susanna Gaertner March 26, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    Oh how this resonates after an appalling exit from the San Jose airport recently when, despite TSA pre-check approval, I was subjected to my first ever “random pat down” which was anything but random or a pat…more like a targeted, intense groping on the eve of my 70th birthday. A fellow traveler, witnessing this public humiliation, thought to help by telling me that “drugs are now placed with children and grannies.” (Drugs out of the country?) An experience to forget, as are the now haunted, harried arrivals and departures once so keenly anticipated and appreciated.