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

Once again, poetry tells us not how it is but how it could be, art “dreaming forward” (the words of writer Ann Pancake) to imagine a world better than the one we live in now

Section 2 returns to an idea mentioned in the first section, that even as people travel the earth, the earth itself is a traveler in the cosmos. The lines “we traverse this planet near the edge / of our dark milky galaxy” are beautiful in their allusion to the Milky Way (always a home run with me), in the unexpected and paradoxical pairing of “milky” with “dark” and in the music those words make. I love the description of earth as “ghosted by one moon,” another phrase that evokes a beautiful image at the same time it makes pleasing sound repetitions (the proximate slant rhyme of “one moon”). That we are meant to see an analogy between the way we roam the earth and the way the earth roams the galaxy is made clear by the description of the earth as “rotating” and “circling one sun” (another slant rhyme), followed by “we revolve with and without one another.” The analogy is strengthened by the conflation of people with planets in the wonderfully consonant and assonant phase, “we . . . meet meteors.” “Star dust” results from these collisions, along with several other very particular, powerful consequences like “sand storms / lake beds / mineral deposits / and fossilized amoeba.”

Thus far, the poem has established that humanity was once one community and race, broken up when some migrated away, and also that the way people travel the earth is like the way the earth itself travels in its larger milieu. Big Bang Theory (that the earth and all matter in the universe once were one) is here implied. Those who remained behind have forgotten those who left, and the departures resulted in some conflicts. In that word “collisions” is embedded the idea of violence, but also the realization that collisions generate some pretty spectacular things like star dust and geography. Moving away from the community has other benefits, such as lending new perspectives that enable people to “see stars fall” and “marvel / at being in the middle / of all these galactic wonders.”

The upshot is that we live now “with and as aliens,” and no matter where we are, “we are surrounded / by other voyagers / like and unlike us.” And, again, it is in this difference that we are all alike. In the poem’s very last stanza, the communal “we” gives way to the first-person singular in “i know / i’ve always been an outsider / amidst immigrants / beside aliens / next to strangers,” and in a final gesture of intimacy and gathering-in, the poem closes with the words “just like you.” Notice how the absence of punctuation here makes it possible to read those three words in at least two completely different ways. They can be read divisively as “strangers just like you,” i.e., that you are a stranger to the speaker. Or, they can be read as more cohesively expressive of the idea that “I am just like you, an immigrant living among immigrants, an alien among aliens, and a stranger among strangers.”

I love the abstract idea that we are all immigrants and in some sense alien to one another, and that this is what unites us. But the fact is that “immigrant” has a very precise meaning in today’s America, and it is, since January 2017, a meaning that excludes millions of men, women, and children now living among us. Once again, poetry tells us not how it is but how it could be, art “dreaming forward” (the words of writer Ann Pancake) to imagine a world better than the one we live in now

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