Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Review: What They Bring: The Poetry of Migration and Immigration

Edited and with Introduction by Irene Willis and Jim Haba (IP Books, 2020)
Reviewed by Charlotte Mandel

​With this new anthology, aptly titled What They Bring: The Poetry of Migration and Immigration, Editors Irene Willis and Jim Haba remind us how dearly each of us interconnects with every other human being, regardless of physical or cultural differences. 

The reader is seized immediately by words well known, such as “the tempest-tossed” of Emma Lazarus giving voice to the Statue of Liberty; Pastor Martin Niemoller's heart-rending “Then they came for me”; heard suddenly in the context of today's world.  Re-reading such familiar poems taken for granted as part of our literary American experience, is profoundly affecting. We recall W. H. Auden (“Refugee Blues”) along with new poems by living poets such as Martin Espada, Alicia Ostriker, Michael Waters, Marie Howe, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Claudia Rankine.

​What They Bring offers insights that can change your life, as with Alberto Rios' poem “A House Called Tomorrow”: 

​You are not fifteen, or twelve, or seventeen—
​You are a hundred wild centuries

​And fifteen, bringing with you
​In every breath and in every step

​Everyone that has come before you. . .

Similarly, the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai states “. . . the migration of my parents / Has not subsided in me.” 

​Indeed, perceptions brought into consciousness cannot be erased. Unlike the way we may surf the TV, or rattle the newspaper towards an op-ed page, this anthology penetrates and advises—pay attention! 

​The editors have worthily included poems of their own, such as Jim Haba's keen understanding of what immigrants bring to our “children's children's children.”  In “Border” Irene Willis writes of reading news of a hungry child left at the border while eating breakfast.

​Several poems take us directly into life experiences of refugees—the permanent feelings of outsider status, the sense of enduring insult. In “A Girl Tying Ribbons in Her Hair” Charlotte Gould Warren writes, “As a child, you learn to keep your pain buried.” In “A Machine for Remembering” Justin Ahren reveals, “I've known my whole life / the barbed wire / behind which I was born.” A. E. Stallings “Refugee Fugue” and Erica Jong's “Child on the Beach” remind us of the heartbreaking image of a drowned toddler face down on shore.

​Outsider status can permeate the sensibility of an American born child of immigrants. 

Maria Mazziotti Gillan's “I Was the Girl Who Never Spoke,” tells of fear that her pronunciation
would show
where I come from
where I belong
where I can never go.

​Reading these poems I have not only gained insight into others' lives, but also been educated into the weight of language, as through Rafael Campo's “In English That Is Spanish”:  

​. . .immortality 
​Is really only going back in time
​Through languages like fourth dimensions, rhymes
​Like clocks to when we were a single race. . .

​I can think of no more necessary book to appear in this dramatic era of global connection alongside elements of divisiveness at play in our own country. We must be grateful to editor-poets Irene Willis and Jim Haba, for bringing us these poems to be read and re-read.

To answer the question implied in the title, what do these immigrants bring?  Humanity, compassion, skills, and an enriched nation. As a reader, I have been profoundly touched by the unforgettable voices heard in these poems.  

Maria Mazziotti Gillan's most recent books are the poetry and photography collection, Paterson Light and Shadow and the poetry collection, What Blooms in Winter. Her collection of poems paired with some of her paintings is The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets. Her artist's website is MariaMazziottiGillan.com and her poetry website is MariaGillan.com.

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