The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue

Asiya Wadud's Crosslight for Youngbird

The things we carry and the things that carry us in the migratory drift

Asiya Wadud
Crosslight for Youngbird
Nightboat Books, 2018

What is a poetics of accounting but a poetics of accountability? It is the stories for which there are no narrative frame, the worlds of experience for which there are no maps, the words for which there is no language that demands our deepest focus, an attention that is at once intensely personal and also outward, public, a fracture that is actually an aperture suggesting the possibility of meeting, of being heard, of listening to another's whispers, which are our own: the "trace of the other," as Spivak has often observed, which is the trace of history. It is a poetics of responsibility as much as a poetics of response, an ethics of care and an erotics of promise—an interiority received, taken in, secreted. It is with this growing awareness of our own complacency amid the normalization of state violence and terror that Asiya Wadud begins Crosslight for Youngbird; by re-orienting our moral compass and the language by which we articulate and conceptualize migration or how we fail to, Wadud becomes both archivist and poet, itinerant and cartographer, inhabiting migratory routes ("Fittja, Sweden"; "The Balkan route"; "Strait of Gibraltar") as well as sites of detainment ("Calais, onward"; "Keleti Station, Budapest") so as to show us our own subjective positions within this shared space we call our world.

News images and cultural representations of refugees within our current "migration crisis"—a term that elides both the perpetual nature of passage, and also many of the reasons for moving—present certain forms of visibility that mobilize various actions from viewers and readers; in portraying the flow of migration as a crisis, the media also articulates a concomitant humanitarian emergency that needs to be acted upon: we are invited to participate, both as voyeurs and as activists working within the realm of compassion and empathy. What is also obscured by this invitation is not our own contribution to the industry of humanitarianism but on the contrary, a critical response to the political structures and policies that generate displacement and the extraction of labor. Let us resist the common and dangerous rhetoric of the "migration crisis" and recognize that today we are experiencing a crisis of moral responsibility. Wadud, in rooting her debut collection in a hybrid form that employs ekphrasis, reportage, sermon, conversation, translation and redaction, lyric essay and lineated verse, understands that one way to embody the porosity of borders is to re-inscribe the border of the body—its limits, its demands, its interrogations, its own liminal slipperiness—to show how we take up space; how we take it in. "Today my sister taught me how to float…" Wadud writes in "we three," "We're all bobbing creatures amniotic salted on this island of deserted windmills." Earlier, "Chamber archipelago" moves from a correspondence with Derek Walcott to a similar concession of the sovereign-self who is both anonymous and autonomous, collected and collective in its amniotic bobbing, "not leeching life" but only buoyed by one another in one another's unasked-for embrace; amniotic, from the Greek amnos: to bring forth.

In any discussion of the images of humankind who are viewed as sub-human, it is important to limn the distinction between visibility—what we see—and visuality—the politics of such representation, which necessarily implies a struggle over what, and who, gets to be represented. Threat and victimization, each in their own way, adjust viewers' attentions toward an ethos of compassion or a policy of denunciation while static migrants paradoxically become vehicles for discussion and study in popular culture and in academia, spoken about and spoken for but never permitted to speak for themselves, possessed as objects or objectified images and yet dispossessed of what Hannah Arendt called "the relevance of speech," the precursor for becoming a political being. Arendt's ethics of public participation necessitates a greater understanding of our vastly different subject positions in the world. "Being seen and being heard by others," Arendt remarked in The Human Condition (1958), "derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position." And yet the mediation of everyday life instills an individualism that is alternately rooted in difference without commonness and commonness without difference, having neither the proclivity nor any capacity for communicating the nuances, complexities, and contradictions inherent in the human experience, an "exhilaration of life/out of place" that is encountered, or countered, with fear:

each passenger with her own disbelief
at the end of a life out of place
she must have been stung before
she must be protecting her newborn
she spent years trying for
or maybe she just can't stand
the sight of life out of place
("a bee on the Brooklyn bound N")

Wadud's "a bee on the Brooklyn bound N" yokes wonder to confusion, the desire to know with the desire to grasp, the certain uncertainty we feel for all things that confound us, not knowing or knowing too well that unsettlement can re-train the eye but also the body, our dependency on state security, our willingness to bow to an "empire [that] licks back." In the side-by-side testimonial "conversations from empire" Wadud collapses Somalia and Germany, present-day and 1945, refugees and death camp prisoners, Omar and Martin, abutting the similarities of unprotected persons everywhere, those without the right to have rights—as Arendt once said—people who have been abandoned and forgotten and here reclaimed:

On April 11, 1945 the 6th US Armored Division liberated Buchenwald. Infantrymen came with their K-Rations: meat, cheese, biscuits. A body after handed years of starkest deprivation must go easy.… Many perished in early April when their bodies could not consume these markers of being free. … What kind of God licks back like that? … Why the empire licks and we have to lick back? … So close to liberation and some empire licks back.

Theirs is a freedom which is itself a death, just as citizenship is its own kind of disappearance. Is it not, always and always again, a country that needs a people, not a people who need a country? Is it not, as Wadud writes, that "the men be damned without a country" or is it in fact the opposite? In "Youngbird, highwaterhome," Wadud moves toward re-constructing the trauma of being internally excluded and eternally out of place: "I was born poor and black just below the Mason-Dixon line where a just God justified all my light inside. … All my life somebody say, where are you from as if this was never my country." The speaker's response—"when a country doesn't claim you, just gather your own"—could be this lean book's manifesto: a call to be named, and more specifically, "a question of naming the unnamed" as Wadud writes pages later, in the metronomic "2:1."

The struggle for representation is a struggle for transmission, translation, the passage of worlds and words, of bodies and experience. Walter Benjamin, in his "Task of the Translator" (1923), called for a concept of life that required everything to have a history of its own; for everything to be counted and countable; for everything that lives to be credited with life. Years later, Walcott, revisiting Benjamin, understood that the latter's stitched-together vessel must necessarily remain broken, rifted; the loving impulse to mend its cracks would mean a glittering re-making of memory, of the original and the origin, of the whole, and the whole of history; Wadud's book provides for this gathering, the re-assembling of self and of a people, beginning and ending with the oft-repeated lesson: "All can be considered light when you name it light." And indeed, if Crosslight for Youngbird can be read as instructions, so much of Wadud's work reads like an incantation, words and phrases repeated so that we feel it twice, again, once more; so that we are reminded to act on the feeling—a litany, a whisper, a photograph (double exposure), a backdrop, a frame, a citation, a camera, a falcon and a storm and a song. All of these and all at once. Elsewhere, Wadud is revisiting or rewriting her own history, toggling between memories and missives to an addressee with whom we share confidences; we become the other's eyes, we take in the writer's gaze in a backdrop that is both dreamlike and intensely specific, a gauzy movement toward revelation, which is itself the precursor toward further disclosure.

That's where we stepped gingerly over shards of glass. That's where you taste metallic. That's where I remember you know me. That's where we were reminded, that's where we remained. That's where we made vaults of our stories. … I let my weight meet yours, you have three dimples; I can count them we are flung asunder and afield. I have a lot I need to tell you. ("other bodies of water")

At other moments, as when we are asked to imagine Sappho in several poses, including one with "a life vest no love" ("still life on lesbos"), Wadud's poetics call for a radical empathy, for the ability—which is a vulnerability—to imagine ourselves somewhere else, as someone else, and to begin again from that waypoint to form a new trajectory, another migratory route; to understand how we might all, for all our difference, long for the same current, the same freedom to move, an itinerary that is less about arriving than it is about becoming. In these everyday migrations—migration as a way of life, not a singular circumstance—Wadud is asking for our close attention and deep focus, but also for our own willingness to surrender to the impossibility of translation, to the possible space of encounter. "I drape the pothos over my arm and know they, too, must have done the same to the same leaf of somewhere along" she writes, knowing that to mark a moment is also to transfigure space—knowing, too, that to rematerialize a feeling as art is to turn a feeling into something that can also be read and remembered. And even so, so much of this work is meant to be read but moreover to be listened to. In that medial shift, what is singular and individual becomes communal and interactive, radial and receptive.


Chris Campanioni

Chris Campanioni is a recipient of the International Latino Book Award for his debut novel, Going Down, the Pushcart Prize for "Soft Opening," from his cross-genre collection Death of Art, and the 2013 Academy of American Poets College Prize. His work on regimes of surveillance, queer migration, and the auto-archival practices of people moving across transnational spaces has been awarded the Calder Prize for interdisciplinary work and a Mellon Foundation fellowship. His essays, poetry, and fiction have been translated into Spanish and Portuguese, and have found a home in several venues, including Best American Essays (HarperCollins, 2022), Denver Quarterly, Massachusetts Review, Gulf Coast, Social Text, Latin American Literature Today, American Poetry Review, Southern Humanities Review, Fence, and BOMB. Chris’s translations have been published in Beginnings of the Prose Poem: All Over the Place (Commonwealth Books, 2021), his multimedia work has been exhibited at the New York Academy of Art, and the film adaptation of his poem "This body’s long (& I’m still loading)" was in the official selection at the Canadian International Film Festival. Recent and forthcoming books include A and B and Also Nothing (Unbound Edition, 2023 / Otis Books Seismicity Editions, 2020), VHS (CLASH Books, 2025), and North by North/west (West Virginia University Press, 2025).


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues