Regularization Plan for Foreigners, 1922
Trujillo says: I will fix this.
And so the man digs the ditches.
The dirt packs beneath his nails and when his wife kisses
his fingers at night she tells him they smell just like graves.
He holds her close, his bella negra of accented Spanish,
who does not think how a single word pronounced wilted
could force him to dig a ditch for her.
Some nights, he dreams of yellowed eyes. Of sweat-drenched
dark brows. Bodies stacked like bricks
building a wall that slices through the sky.
Borders are not as messy as people think.
They are clear, marked by ditches, by people face down,
head-to-ankle skin-linked fences: Do Not Cross.
Puedes ser nada disfrazado en piel y pelo?
He’s learned to turn his ears down like a donkey
when the children of Haitians plead, Yo soy Dominicano.
At best they’re mules,
El Jefe tells the ditch digger, who is glad
he was born on this side of the flag. This remedy will continue,
El Jefe says. And so the ditch digger repeats the instructions
like a refrain for cutting cane:
aim low, strike wide, look away as the open earth swallows them.
Mami Came to this Country as a Nanny
and around the same time she tells me i can’t walk
the house wearing only panties anymore,
she teaches me how to hand wash them in the sink.
tsking that washing machines
don’t launder as well as a good knuckling,
she drops soap on the crotch, folds the fabric
on itself and shows me how one end
pulls out the stains of the other;
detergent, and fabric, and hands against hands
make the seemingly most dirty material clean again.
no menstrual cycle ever made me more woman
in mami’s eyes than this learning how to wash my own ass,
this turning of the shower rod into a garland of intimates.
this memory tighten my fist that first week of freshman year
when katie kerr’s mother, who has a throat made for real pearls,
points her unsoftened mouth at me, letting loose the sullied words:
you better take care of Katie, she’s always had help.
and i have to blink, and blink, and blink but leave unmentioned
all the ways my hands have learned to care for things like her.
It’s easy to forget a pot of beans when you’re numb.
The burning crinkled my nose but I didn’t stir,
so when you come home
after work asking, did you hear the verdict?
I can only tell you I forgot to lower the heat,
that the stovetop stained where the beans split open
and pushed out from their skins; the boiling pot
sputtering blue-black water I can’t bring myself
Cubans call the dish Moros y Cristianos
a name tied back to the time
when the North Africans conquered Spain.
No one knows why the Cubans named it that,
named their most popular meal
after black power. I think they were being hopeful.
We say a silent grace over plain white rice.
And I wonder if you, like me, pray for an unborn
child we’ve already imagined shot in the chest.
Tonight, no music plays and for the first time since I
learned to cook I understand
a meal can be a eulogy of mouthfuls.
Neither one of us scrubs the stove. Some things
deserve to be smudged. Ungleamingly remembered.
A few good words with Elizabeth
PDS: In “Regularization Plan for Foreigners, 1922,” you write that “Borders are not as messy as people think,” but that in fact they’re clear and simple in their violence and erasure. I wonder how else you see the idea of the border manifesting in this poem—through language, through perspective, or voice?
EA: The line “borders are not as messy as people think” is a peculiar one in a poem like this. I think the line standing alone in a host of other lines that are messy, subverts itself. This is a disordered looking poem. It takes up space where it shouldn’t. The lines don’t end cleanly or begin where we imagine. The words move where they want on the page; lines are dropped down mid-sentence. All of that speaks to the way that borders manifest in the form. I don’t use caesuras often, but in this poem, there was a natural inclination to include breaks—breaks that must be crossed and navigated by the reader. Breaks that seem unnatural; that disrupt fluidity cleanly, but jarringly.
And I think the omniscient perspective is also a kind of bordering. This removal of the speaker from the poem creates a fence between the consciousness of the speaker and the Parsley Massacre. It creates an almost curious objectivity of the graves being dug. The perspective, I hope, showcases the way we create distances. The way that we other. Aren’t these simply borders of the mind?
PDS: Both “Mami Came to this Country as a Nanny” and “Beloved” frame objects of the domestic intimate (panties, a pot of black beans) as objects of the body. The panties evoke the folds of the woman’s body, and also iterates the ways in which we may try to knuckle our bodies immaculate, to make “the most dirty material clean again.” The beans are the body ruined, the body out of its skin, but also in their mess, the body left as reminder—the enduring body of grief. How do you see these two poems and their embodiments speaking to each other?
EA: Both of these poems struggle with the scales of violence inflicted on bodies of color in America. Where “Mami Came to this Country as a Nanny” focuses on a racial micro-aggression, “Beloved” concerns itself with the murder of a black child. But these topics feel too big for me to write in a poem. The only entrance I have is to make a home of the body and knock softly on the door; to find a way in through the domestic, the little household moments and memories that are highly racialized, even though they are normal to the speaker. And maybe that’s a way in which the poems are speaking to each other, the “normal” daily activities of the black speaker (cooking or hand washing clothes) to show disruption when encountering whiteness. Ultimately, I believe both poems are pitted against the white gaze and the destruction it can enact on a black person’s psyche and body.
PDS: We all have read poems, stories or essays that seem to speak all of our secret languages, that feel like kin, like a familiar. What works already know your name?
EA: Although I’ve never said this out loud, to myself I’ve always called Lucille Clifton the mother of my orphaned poems. I read her and feel like a child being called home after the streetlights have come on, out of the dark and into a house where I belong. I think I continue to be a poet because of Ms. Lucille. Natalie Diaz is another poet who I read and feel like the poems are calling something forth from me. I owe a lot of my MFA thesis to When My Brother Was an Aztec. It’s difficult to write about mourning when the objective of grief is still alive. Diaz taught me how to interrogate that complexity.
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion as well as a Cave Canem Fellow, CantoMundo Fellow, and participant of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. Her manuscript, Blessed Fruit & Other Origin Myths, was a finalist for Yes Yes Books’ chapbook poetry prize and will be published in fall of 2016. She lives in Washington D.C.