Poetry Sunday: “on issues of aliens, immigration and cosmology,” by Devorah Major

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

During the last week in January, the new administration issued orders aimed to radically change the way America, once viewed as the “great melting pot” of cultures, will deal with its immigrants for the next four years. Millions of people who sought political asylum, refuge, or just a better life in this country are now at risk of summary deportation, and these may include college students and other children, formerly protected by the Dream Act, who did not themselves make the decision to come here. Other executive orders declared the intention to build a giant wall on our Mexican border, to refuse sanctuary to Syrian refugees, and to issue a wholesale ban on immigrants from seven countries deemed to harbor terrorist activity.

These are precarious times for immigrants in our country, one reason I was drawn to today’s poem, a somewhat metaphysical musing on what it means to be an immigrant, an alien, or any kind of “other” in the world. The core premise of “on issues of aliens, immigration and cosmology” is that we are united not just in but by our divisions; that is, human beings have in common our individuality and alienation from one another. It’s an interesting paradox and one worth exploring further, but let’s first dispense with what I’ve called the “MFA Flyover” in previous Poetry Sunday columns.

With its variable-length stanzas, lack of metrical or rhyme pattern, and vernacular speech, “on issues of aliens, immigration and cosmology” falls into the category of free verse. As a further rebellion against formality, it eschews capitalization and punctuation and speaks mostly in short lines. However, syntax is regular and line breaks are conventional (coming at natural pauses in the flow of speech), characteristics that make it possible to parse the poem’s sentences and understand what is being said. Diction is straightforward, avoiding polysyllabic and arcane words. Despite its unconventional appearance, this is an accessible poem. That is not to say that it is simplistic or shallow, just that the poet has chosen a strategy that does not rely on ambiguity or heightened formality to achieve its effect. Ambiguity and formality would in fact undermine the poem’s intended effect, which seems to be to connect rather than estrange us.

“on issues of aliens, immigration and cosmology” is divided into two sections, the first with nine and the second with six stanzas. It’s narrated in the first person, mostly plural but with the first-person singular “i” making two appearances in the final stanza. The very last word in the poem is “you,” a move that transforms all that came before into an intimate conversation, an effect heightened by the entire poem’s being cast in simple present tense. The poem’s form (for free verse is, in fact, a form) announces a speaker who is unassuming, open, and even friendly in her posture, someone not interested in erecting barriers between herself and the reader. In these respects, the poem is characteristic of the collection from which it is drawn, and then we became (City Lights 2016).

Let’s define a few terms. Dictionary.com tells us that an “alien” is “a resident born in . . . another country who has not acquired citizenship by naturalization” and more generally “a person who has been estranged or excluded.” A third definition, of course, is the familiar notion of aliens as extraterrestrials or creatures from outer space. An immigrant is “a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.” Technically speaking, all immigrants are aliens until they become citizens, but because of its larger psychological meaning, not every “alien” is an immigrant. Both words have Latin roots, “alien” from a modified noun meaning “other” and immigrant from a verb meaning “to move into.” It’s interesting to me that “alien” comes from a noun and adjective form and describes a status or condition of being, while “immigrant” comes from a verb and depends on the action of moving from one area into another; of the two terms, “alien” seems more a given or inherent human trait.

“[T]ruth be told we are / all aliens now” establishes the idea that our differences are what unite us, and also that this was not always the case. There was a time, perhaps on another planet, perhaps before earth’s continents divided, when “we all were natives.” What drove a wedge between us was distance, physical separation. While a few of the original people remained “nestled” behind, most “traveled / to here . . . where our children grow and flourish / or wither and perish.” Reading further, we learn that those who stayed behind at some point “stopped telling stories / of we who had left”—they forgot us. When we all lived in one place, there was no enmity and no need to question “who was our kin” because everyone was kin. Section 1 closes by reiterating the notion that physical separation is what “turned each other / into opposites / becoming and creating aliens.”

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