4 out of 4 stars
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What They Bring: The Poetry of Migration and Immigration is a collection of poems to help the reader “think about migration and immigration and to feel deeply and empathize.” Irene Willis was so inspired by the poem “Let Them Come,” written by her friend Jim Haba, that she asked Haba to collaborate with her in pulling together this collection of work.
Undoubtedly, Haba’s brief poem is inspirational. It begins: “What they bring is always more than what we thought we needed.” Those words touched me profoundly. They represent countless timeless scenarios.
The fellow poets that Irene Willis and Jim Haba selected for this anthology have impressive credentials. They include poets laureate of the United Kingdom, the United States, six states, and two cities. There are also Pulitzer Prize winners, Guggenheim Fellowship recipients, and a Nobel Prize winner in the group. The works span over a century and are penned by widely recognized names, such as W. H. Auden and Robert Frost, and less recognizable names (at least to this reviewer), such as Yehuda Amichai and Mark Smith-Soto.
This compilation includes an appendix with a brief listing of the accomplishments of each poet. I purposely did not read their entry until after I read their poem. I did not want their achievements to influence me—I wanted to experience what they brought unencumbered.
The collection starts with “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, whose recognizable words welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” to the United States are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. It ends with a benediction of sorts, “Small Kindnesses” by Danusha Lameris, reminding us of the innate goodness of humanity. Within these two bookends are nearly 100 poems by over 80 authors that share a glimpse of migration and immigration, leaving and arriving, and loss and hope.
I did not expect to like every poem, but I was disappointed with how many I failed to grasp. There were more than a few entries that I believe would be understood only by the writer and the one they were writing about. This left me frustrated; it was as if they were standing in front of me talking to each other about an experience they went through in a language I did not understand. Hmm. There may be a lesson in that experience.
There were plenty of poems, however, that I did understand. I heard clearly what Gwendolyn Brooks was saying in “I Am a Black.” She passionately described the difference between being an African-American and being a Black. In a few powerful words, she illustrated the global affiliation of Blackness.
In “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Bathroom at Sears,” Moja Kahf is the translator and negotiator between her grandmother and the disapproving “respectable Sears matrons” as her grandmother washes her feet in the bathroom. She must take her well-timed break from shopping to avoid missing one of the mandatory prayer times for Muslims. This astute granddaughter understands the setting well. She translates for both sides and navigates the situation flawlessly; her negotiation involves less translating and more pacifying. At the end of the standoff at the door of the women’s bathroom, she holds “the door open for everyone and we all emerge on the sales floor and lose ourselves in the great common ground of housewares on markdown.” I would have loved to witness this scene.
Connections I made with some poems will stay with me for a while, maybe forever. I will remember Kathleen Kraft and her mother whenever I see Swedish Fish, especially the red ones. I will also think of Li-Young Lee’s raw, global dissertation on human life the next time I see a butcher. I recommend this collection of poems to anyone who would like to explore expressions of migration and immigration. Some are unique to the writer’s circumstances, but many are universal situations we all face when we leave one place for another in hopes of a better life.
What They Bring is a well-organized, thought-provoking collection of experiences. I am pleased to rate this anthology 4 out of 4 stars.
What They Bring
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