Margaree Little’s debut poetry collection Rest confronts the fatal reality of border-crossing. The backdrop for many of these poems is a humanitarian mission near Tucson, and Little includes charts throughout the book documenting individuals who died while attempting to cross the border in 2009-2010. The book’s central focus explores the trauma of finding the unidentified body of a man who dies while crossing the Mexican border into the United States, a man who has been dead for six months. Through stark and powerful imagery, poetry becomes a vital outlet for addressing this highly-politicized subject matter. In terms of representing trauma and the act of healing, Rest contains purity and thoughtfulness through the challenge of elegizing an unknown person.
In reimagining the unknown man, Little’s poem “The Subjunctive” begins with riveting visuals: “If not the cane fields, if that’s not where he worked, / it could have been a city with white walls and gray birds / in the plaza, children begging on the steps / of the church” (16). The balance of the political and the poetic is skillful. Little combines cane fields and children begging with the image of white walls and gray birds. Sound and smell are brought in: “Or maybe he came from the mountains / in the south, sound of crickets at night, / smell of each day’s fire.” There is love: “And he loved the sound / of one woman’s voice, or the underside / of her wrists.” There is also a child: “And their son cried, and their son was hungry.” For the speaker, these political/poetic contrasts become the motivating factor behind the unknown man’s decision to cross the border. To end “The Subjunctive,” the speaker addresses his interior thoughts:
Or he folded his hands under his head, told himself he’d stop
for just a few minutes, just to rest. And it was August,
I know that it was August, because the sheriff said
it had been six months at least, time to be buried by the shale
and then unburied, soft wind giving him new names,
or he went back home, or he never left home,
he didn’t try to cross, never put his mouth
to the gravel here, never thought that it was water (16-17).
The last stanza contains a quick, active rhythm: “He went back home,” “he never left home,” “he didn’t try to cross,” “never put his mouth to gravel,” “never thought it was water.” The repeated word “never” carries the heaviest weight in the last line: “never thought it was water.” Here, the speaker sees the unknown man as both self-aware and doomed. If he never leaves home, he does not die in Arizona, but he may die another kind of death. Therefore, the root of the problem is exposed: political and economic corruption which leads to inequality, and, in turn, a loss of life.
Little follows this poem with “Revision” which does more of the same kind of imagining, but takes it further. The poem begins with an assertion by the speaker: “Water, this is the first revision, that we brought water for him in time” (18). The poem offers another revision:
No, that he’d had it himself, he carried a river on his back and drank from
it that whole walk through the desert, and we only found his body because
he’d decided to leave it behind
The revisions gain metaphorical power as thirst and water become more than physical requirements for survival. The poem becomes more complicated when the speaker discovers an unidentified jaw along with the man: “…it was not just one man there, but two, that is, one man and a jaw.” The power of this line is contained in the last five words: one dead man and the broken piece of a second dead person. The title “Revision” takes on an ironic twist for the simple fact that revision itself is an impossible task. The speaker does not have the resources or the power to solve this humanitarian crisis. The poet can do nothing more than let the image go and end the poem with a contrasting last line: “And the stars overhead like white women” (19).
Personal feeling escalates throughout Rest and deepens the energy of the poems in beautiful and complex moments. The speaker passionately proclaims: “You could tell he was a god by the way his / feet were broken” (28). Throughout the book, Little returns to the psychological implications of finding the unidentified body of a man who suffered fatally as a result of border-crossing. Near the end of “February” the speaker admits: “Then I couldn’t remember if he’d been wearing a shirt, / then, for days at a time, why he mattered— / since he was never mine to have lost” (30). Readers might disagree with the speaker: he very much has become hers to lose—and she has found him in the imaginative part of her psyche. Obsession transforms into an opportunity to elegize, to heal.
“The Instrument Maker,” central to Rest, is a raw and visceral poem with metaphorical and imagistic power. It sits skillfully in the middle of the collection as a rest point; it breaks from the unknown man completely and inserts a different unknown man. The poem begins:
Before he taught me about the glass he taught me about the copper,
how to cut the narrow pipe where he’d marked it,
different lengths for different notes,
then how to sand the edges down, make them dull and smooth,
line them up on the sawhorses (40).
The lines are tight and musical; this unknown “he” adds a mysterious element to the poem. As the poem builds a motif of natural imagery, the narrative language intensifies: “bent over the worktable, learning about the glass…,” “attach the diamond drill bit, / lower the drill so it almost looked like it hadn’t touched at all—” (40-41). “The Instrument Maker” explores the satisfying art of detailed craftsmanship and includes the best ending in the book if only for its pure poetic indulgence:
And the trick he taught me when I stayed late, how to make one cut
and then radial cuts around it, each an equal distance from the center,
and if they were in the right relationship to each other
the glass would break into a perfect circle, a single hole
exactly in the middle, like the meadow of snow, one tree
clean against it, that I passed on my way back (41).
The imagery in this passage speaks to the focus of Rest, which meticulously honors a man that the speaker can never fully know. The poems in this collection rely on the practiced art of imaginative instinct; the passage above is a representation of that painstaking, devoted desire to elegize, to clean deep psychic wounds, which is a craft in itself.
Originally published in Kenyon Review Online, August 31, 2018