Wednesday, November 5, 2008

At the Border with William Carlos Williams

'Twas New Year's Day in 2005. I'd spent a great Christmas in Vegas, had seen and hiked the Grand Canyon for the first time, and had driven down through Arizona to visit friends in and around Tucson, falling in love with the landscape and the saguaro cacti. Preparing to cross from the U.S. into Mexico at Nogales, Arizona, with my wife and two friends on January 1—my first time south of the border—I came to stand before this marble monument etched with an excerpt from the poem "At Night" by William Carlos Williams:

The stars, that are small lights—
now that I know them foreign,
uninterfering, like nothing
in my life—I walk by their sparkle
relieved and comforted.

Mind you, the border at Nogales is not easy on the eyes, nor is its landscape a particularly poetic one—at day or night. A huge corrugated steel fence topped with razor wire runs as far as the eye can see up the hill in both directions, decorated on the Mexico side with artistic memorials for those who've died trying to make the cross.

Not easy on the eyes. Not easy on the soul. And not easily poeticized. Indeed, what sort of relationship between the U.S. and Mexico was the U.S. border guard trying to enact by erecting the excerpt from "At Night" (first published in Matthew Josephson's avant garde magazine Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts in 1923)? How are we supposed to read the stars of the poem—"foreign, / uninterfering"—in this border context? Is it supposed to be descriptive of Mexico? Is it a fantasy about the way the U.S. would like Mexico to be? Is it comparing the idealized stars, "like nothing / in my life," to the actual state of border politics which is anything but uninterfering? Is the focus on the stars rather than on real circumstances a wish to wash away the reality of border violence? It's not entirely clear how we're supposed to read "At Night" in this borderland, but "Poetry & Popular Culture" can't help but find the desire to be "relieved and comforted" a fatuous one on the part of U.S. border police.

This is made all the more confusing by the fact that Williams has been chosen as this border's bard. As we all know, the Good Doctor was born in, and lived most of his life in, New Jersey—far from the Mexico/Arizona border. While Hispanic in origin, the "Carlos" in his name does not come from Mexico as the monument's placement suggests, but from Puerto Rico where his mother was born. Despite the bilingual English/Spanish translation of the marbleized poetry, Williams's Hispanic roots themselves have little to do with Mexico or this part of the U.S.

As a poetic ambassador intended to ease—or get people to ignore—the pains of the border fence and the separation of families and loss of lives that that fence represents, this monument is as grotesque a failure as the corrugated steel and razor wire itself. Leave it up to the politicos to not only attempt to beautify or distract us from the ugliness of their policies, but to then confuse the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico with the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico—lumping all Spanish speakers into one idealized "foreign, / uninterfering" group of people! The Good Doctor must be rolling in his grave.