I would like share recent student responses to poems read in an LCS 121 class. What was unique about the poems was their newness: many had been taken from recent editions of New Yorker Magazine (available through Bryant databases), thus coinciding with the 2016 presidential election. Several poems referred to contested issues during the campaign. This is no less true of Lucie Brock-Broido’s poem, “American Security against Foreign Enemies Act,” the title of which refers to a 2015 Bill requiring stricter certification of refugees from Syria and Iraq before their admission into the U.S. Brock-Broido’s poem speaks to our increasing concern for security and how this impacts our attitudes towards others. The strange use of interrogative voice, here directed towards a female Muslim, foregrounds a certain alarm towards migrants of different cultures:
Why do you feel “most vulnerable.” Where,
In Damascus, were you born. To whom do you
Have you ever spoken through
A mesh…Is it hot inside your burqa. Who
Was Frank Sinatra…
Meanwhile, the husband of the Muslim woman is asked to “point to Mecca” while explaining at the same time why “our court” is “Supreme.”
In her response, Corinne Poirier writes,
The structure of the questions within this poem is what makes it. Each question is strategically placed in variation between Muslim and American cultures. It does not matter if the question pertains to American or Muslim. It is a broad generalization and stereotype; it is what narrows our perspectives and mind. It is what makes us tone deaf to cultures that are not our own. The poem uses enjambment to show how relentless the process is when a refugee is interrogated; it never ends. There is no pause or break to let the refugee get a word in edge wise. The conversation is one-sided. The device the poet uses to ensure this is syntax. There are no question marks in the poem. How can this be? It is because a refugee has no voice. Their home country has made them leave or they choose to leave, and now they are tied to nothing, hence they would rather stay silent than risk further punishment.
As questions veer towards the absurd (i.e. “…How tall was Jesus in bare feet;/Do you consider him a refugee/…What are ‘The Hunger Games’”…), Corinne adds,
It is impossible to gain any real intelligence or knowledge of the refugee by asking these questions; the list of questions shows how little the narrator really understands.
This poem truly foreshadows the culture we live in today, where we would rather accuse each other than learn about our cultural differences. The syntax illustrates how blind we have become to social injustice. In this way, we become the perpetrator and if we are not careful enough, we could become the narrator of this poem- the interrogator. If we put generalizations behind us and ask thoughtful questions, maybe we will answer each other a little better.
In his account, Nelson Zhou brings out the banality of the questioning, offering a first-hand account:
As a Chinese student in America, I have a sense of the kind of questions aimed at foreigners and how they are asked. When foreigners first arrives in this country, they are questioned about their identity, race, religion and other topics that set them apart from natural citizens. Thus when the speaker of poem asks questions to the asylum seeker about his or her religion (“to whom do you pray”) or places recently traveled (“Have you visited/ Somalia.”), this points to the questions asked by airport security. However, the questions are unwelcoming and hurtful to the one whom they are directed. The author’s use of unanswered questions shows how racial discrimination is caused by the security act.
This raises a paradox: if security depends on discrimination, can it continue to be security?