Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice (The University of Arizona Press, 2016) by Vivian Wagner

Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice is a remarkable, moving book that brings political poetry to the foreground of the national conversation about racism and oppression. The anthology originally grew out of a Facebook page, “Poets Responding to SB 1070,” that editors Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez created in response to the passage of Arizona’s 2010 anti-immigration law. This page, say the editors, called on people “to lift their voices, to engage in direct action campaigns, and to form challenges to any and all copycat laws being proposed in other states. Hundreds of poems from all over the United States and the world were soon posted on the Facebook page.”

The anthology that grew out of this social media community is a collection of works by writers from various regions and ethnicities, and all of these works share a common thread of resistance. This project, say the editors, “defines a new role for poetry and poets in society and the digital age.”

Reading this anthology, I have to say that I think they’re right. The collective energy and voice represented by these poems is powerful, and the volume demonstrates the many ways that poetry can participate in movements of political change.

The book collects work by dozens of poets, putting their poems into dialogue with each other. The editors list several themes woven in and through the book, including nature, borders, apartheid, family, resistance, and the creation of sacred spaces. All of the collection’s poems touch on at least one of these themes in their stories and images. There is such a sense of shared purpose in these works, in fact, that it sometimes starts to feel like one large epic poem about this era. There’s tremendous power in gathering voices together like this so that poets and readers can begin to see that they’re not alone, and also to understand how various kinds and acts of oppression share common roots.

This is a collection about collaboration—between the poems and poets, and between the poets and the readers. As the editors say, “this book is a work of the heart dedicated to the struggles of people trying to figure out where they belong on the basis of what their governments are doing and with whom they are collaborating.” Such collaboration is vital and necessary, especially at a time when communities and families are being forcibly torn apart by political rhetoric and action.

At the same time, each poem in this volume can be taken on its own, with its own unique voice, story, imagery, and poetic sensibility. The poems vary widely in style and form and subject matter. Some are in English, and some in Spanish. Some of the Spanish poems are paired with an English translation, and some are not. A number of poems are woven from multiple languages and voices, reflecting an experience of hybridity and intersectionality.

Many of the book’s poems are about borders. Crossing borders. Imagining borders. Being damaged by borders. Borders in the desert, political borders, and borders in the mind and heart. Borders between now and then, here and there, parents and children. Between the U.S. and Mexico. Between the history and the present. Between oppressors and oppressed.

A poem by Alarcón early in the book, “Borderless Compassion,” introduces this theme, describing the immigrant experience of crossing borders and migration, of trauma and loss. It ends with a stanza describing “migrant butterflies — / trapped in a world in need / of borderless compassion.” That recognition of the damage caused by borders—and the cruelty that often accompanies their enforcement—underlies many of the poems in this collection.

In her “The Flag of Touch,” Sarah Browning describes the ironic use of the word “fence” in describing sections of the U.S./Mexico border – suggesting a domestic friendliness that’s far from the physical and political reality:

          On the border with Mexico
          we call it a fence, as if
          to lean on its top, chat
          with those neighbors
          to the south, trade rakes
          trade gossip.

Her poem ultimately calls for a dissolution of that border, with the speaker saying she wants

                    the flag of talking,
          of sitting on the disintegrating
          wall and gabbing, gossiping,
          negotiating, waving that flag
          of no walls. That flag.

The next poem in the collection, “Border Ghost of Sonora,” explores the surreal and personal tolls of the border:

          My mother roams the border
          she floats between the countries
          she thought would share her heart.

Calatayud’s poem, too, wishes for a dissolution of the hurtful, deathly demarcation that cuts both through the desert and through lives and families:

          I have a monsoon wish:
          Let the rains wash away
          the boots of the Border Patrol
          so they step in flooded sand

          because I am tired of la migra
          who walk with feet of rock,
          who clothe me in a cape of fear
          who make me think
          that God is a wolf in the night.

In “Border Crossing,” Sharon Elliot explores the way the physical border becomes metaphorical and spiritual:

          I have been here all my life
          standing at the invisible line
          between being
          and not being
          between this world and the next

Ultimately, her poem suggests, all borders are an illusion created to maintain political power and oppression:

          ten thousand feet
          have walked this path,
          been thrown across that line
          that lie

Since this is a book of poetry, and not an academic treatise or political pamphlet, the poems don’t necessarily make arguments. Rather, they provide images that tell stories, that carry the weight of history and meaning, of emotion and change. Daniel García Ordaz’s “Immigrant Crossing,” for instance, uses the image of a father’s feet, with their bunions and blisters and calluses, to represent the toll of border crossings on bodies and families.

Many of the poems describe the dangerous, underpaid labor of immigrants, bringing alive a world that’s often rendered invisible. In “Arizona Green (Manifesto #1070), one-time U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera explores the meaning and experience of all things green—cilantro, celery, Serrano peppers, broccoli, green grapes—as representative of abusive agriculture practices. At the same time, however, the earth might also nurture resistance:

          You know the earth is with you
          You know it because every day you touch it you speak to it
          You say
          with your cilantro-shaped voice You say
          Eres todo lo que tengo

Herrera’s poem builds toward a rising, a growth, and perhaps a revolution:

          That is when you dance
          That is when you dance green in the green wind
          That is when you dance green on the blown southern deserts of Arizona
          Wild blades of green among the border dead
          You rise again

The last poem in the collection, Andre Yang’s “Why I Feel the Way I Do About SB 1070,” draws parallels between the experiences of oppressed indigenous peoples around the world, including both Native Americans and the Hmong. The speaker gives a list of reasons for feeling the way he does about SB 1070, and among them are that he “believed for too long that I couldn’t do anything / about anything.” It’s a fitting poem to end a collection that illustrates how writing and reading poetry might be one way to start doing something.

Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Narratively, Eyedrum Periodically, Silk Road Review, Stoneboat, and other publications. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington) and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books). Visit her website at www.vivianwagner.net