Poetry Comment

We’re often told that the United States is a nation of immigrants. Historically, newcomers have been expected to be grateful and to blend into the dominant culture, and that’s what a lot of them have done. My grandparents left what is now Belarus in 1920 and made a great life for themselves in Brooklyn. Not for them Elizabeth Bishop’s question, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” If they had stayed home, they would have been murdered in the Holocaust.

Brazilian poet Aline Mello gives us another side of the immigrant experience. There are cultural losses: she can’t dance forró like her grandfather. There are changes: she cut her hair short. To fit in? To feel more free? Both? And there is the anti-immigrant hostility of government and the anger that evokes. “The truth is this country consumes you,” Mello writes in “Self-Deportation,” a reference to policies intended to make life so difficult that undocumented immigrants will give up and leave: “Watch me strap my mother to my back. / I will take home with me.”

Preserving family memories is another way of “taking home with me.” In “Family Keepsake,” Mello imagines her grandmother’s death (in childbirth?) after eight wanted children. A tragic story? Not exactly. The grandmother loved and was loved, after all. You have to decide for yourself where the balance is between happiness and suffering, life and death in this mini biography of one traditional woman that reverberates in the imagination of her granddaughter, far from home.

—Katha Pollitt

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