Singing America: A Review of Mispresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America (NYQ Books)
Reviewed by Brian Fanelli
Following the election of Donald J. Trump, my inbox was flooded with calls for submissions from literary journals that were seeking poems in response to the election results and the new American reality. The challenge with political poetry is that it can become dated because it is so rooted in the present moment. However, the United States is undergoing such an attack on its intuitions by an administration that muddies the narrative about what is true and what isn’t true that the idea of shying away from political poetry at a time like this seems foolish. Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America (NYQ Books) sings of an America that is diverse and multi-cultured. The anthology reminds us that poetry is an effective vehicle to challenge the debasement of language and the assault on American ideals.
Edited by poets Maria Isabel Alvarez and Dante Di Sefano, the anthology contains work by nearly 100 poets. The content is diverse and features poems about police brutality, LGBT rights, the aftermath of the election, the rhetoric of the 2016 campaign, and the immigrant experience. Due to the constant headlines about ICE raids and the DREAMers, the immigrant experience poems feel the most urgent. The rhetoric about the wall and the labeling of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers” was at the heart of the Trump campaign. More recently, it has been the source of threatened government shutdowns. It should also be noted that proceeds from the anthology will be donated to the National Immigration Law Center.
I was drawn to the immigrant experience poems because all of my grandparents were immigrants. Most of them came to the U.S. from Italy, and, like other immigrants, their families sought a better life in the states. My hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania, was a settling point for Irish and Italian immigrants relocating to the northeast, U.S., and their story, much like the stories of the DREAMERers and other contemporary immigrants, is the American story. To Trump’s credit, he was able to play on the justifiable anger over wage stagnation and northeastern, Pennsylvania’s struggling economy, especially during his campaign stops in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. Yet, missing from the narrative is the way that issues of class cut across racial lines. Misrepresented People addresses this, in part, by placing poets of color alongside white poets with working-class backgrounds, like Joe Weil, Jim Daniels, and Maria Mazziotti Gillan. The anthology’s selection of voices is a means to show how the Trump era affects all of the working-class.
Martin Espada’s poem, “Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits,” gives a name and story to the immigrant experience. Jorge, the speaker, confesses in the opening stanza, “No one asks/where I am from,/I must be/from the country of janitors,/I have always mopped this floor./Honduras, you are a squatter’s camp/outside the city/of their understanding.” Immediately, Espada shows the reader what it feels like to be the other, to work a job day in and day out, while everyone around you doesn’t know where you’re actually from and assumes that all of your people are janitors, or other low-wage workers.
The poem continues, “No one can speak/my name,/I host the fiesta/of the bathroom,/stirring the toilet/like a punchbowl./The Spanish music of my name/is lost/when the guests complain/about toilet paper.” In the first two stanzas, Espada is able to weave issues of class and identity, while showing how it feels to be invisible, despite working at the same place every day.
Jorge, however, commits an act of resistance in the poem’s conclusion:
No one knows
that I quit tonight,
maybe the mop
will push on without me,
sniffing along the floor
like a crazy squid
with stringy gray tentacles
They will call it Jorge.
In Alvarez’s poem, “In America,” she uses three stanzas to explore the frustration and pain of being a woman and an immigrant at this point in our history. She writes,
They ask me
What’s it like being a brown woman in America?
I want to say
It’s like screaming in a dream
And expecting a reaction.
They ask me
What’s it like being an immigrant in America?
I want to say
It’s like wearing perfume
And everyone is allergic.
They ask me
What’s it like praying for change in America?
I want to say
It’s like pressing your ear to dirt
And hoping to hear the sea.
The pronoun “they” is especially interesting. It does not point to any specific person, but it could be read as white liberal friends, or the liberal community in general. Like Espada’s poem, Alvarez sheds light on what it means to be a brown-skinned person in the U.S. The frustration is evident at the end of the first stanza, and yet, by the last stanza, the speaker is still praying for change, pressing her ear to the dirt, still hoping to hear the sea.
William Archila’s poem, “This Is for Henry,” is one of the most personal in the anthology and its story will certainly transcend this tumultuous period in our history. The three-page narrative tells the story of the speaker and Henry, a childhood friend, or a sibling, possibly, who is on the run from the police at the start of the poem. The poem begins, “It always starts here,/over the chain-linked fence/with crocked fingers,/leather shoes, running/across the railroad tracks,/no sound but a gasp/for breath, our white shirts flapping/like flags, cops in black behind.” The poem then shifts to an image of Henry kneeling on the ground, a baton at his back, before it shifts again to a memory of Henry and the speaker working in a “dark kitchen” together, dreaming of North America, of “blonde girls and their bikinis/low riders at night, you in a zoot suit/and Bruce Lee.”
Henry is ultimately deported to a village, while the speaker becomes a teacher, who is haunted by memories of Henry and sees him in his students, in their dark eyes, white shirts, and shiny shoes, as they move to the black board, “cracking English grammar.” This poem works so well because it is rich in personal memory and specific detail. It makes these immigrant kids relatable to the reader. Though they are certainly not perfect, they are still part of the American fabric. Growing up, they dreamed of American culture and life and wanted access to that. The speaker didn’t grow up to be a biochemist, but he did grow up to be a teacher trying to help others learn English, while never forgetting Henry.
Misrepresented People sings of an America that Walt Whitman envisioned, an America that is large, an America that is democratic and contains a multitude of voices. The anthology contains voices most affected by this administration, including people of color, the LGBT community, women, the working-class, and of course, immigrants. This is an America worth celebrating, whose voices are poetic and tell of the struggle that past immigrants faced, including the Irish and Italians who settled in places like Scranton or Akron and were initially seen as the other.
Brian Fanelli’s most recent book of poems is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Poetry Prize. He is also the author of All That Remains (Unbound Content) and the chapbook Front Man (Big Table Publishing). His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Main Street Rag, and elsewhere. He co-edited the anthology Down the Dog Hole: 11 Poets on Northeastern Pennsylvania (Nightshade Press). Brian has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and Ph.D. from SUNY Binghamton University. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College, and he blogs about film, literature, and politics at www.brianfanelli.com.