I very rarely post my poetry, since I write it as performance poetry and just reading the text alone is more of a supplement. But MN Microphone is doing a special project examining "political poetry." This is my submission.
I wrote this poem in response to the ICE raid in Postville, Iowa back in May of 2008. It just seemed like such a blatantly unjust attack on people who were simply trying to make a living. This kind of stuff happens all the time, but this raid was just such a big, clear example of the wrong-headedness of U.S. immigration policy that it made a very natural entry point for a poem.
I didn't, however, want to just regurgitate the news story. I think too many poems do that; it's easy to hold up a current events story and say "this is good" or "this is bad" and get a high score at a slam. Instead, I wanted to touch on immigration issues, but really have the poem be about privilege, about how even good people benefit from terrible, hurtful policies, whether or not they agree with or understand them. This is a more challenging topic to think about, and something I continue to struggle with all the time.
Heartland The interpreter is crying. I’m not sure he even realizes it. The tracks of his tears like blood from a bullet hole. They call this the heart land. Between us sits a third man, openly sobbing. Through the interpreter I explain to him that he has two options: Plead guilty of knowingly using a fake social security number and receive a five-month jail sentence immediately followed by deportation, or plead not guilty, wait six to eight months for a trial with no bail, be deported anyway and risk a minimum two-year sentence for aggravated identity theft. He does not understand. Begs to be deported immediately to take care of his family. See he’s innocent, but five months may as well be a death sentence. Our fourteenth client today. And I’m thinking back to law school, trying to pinpoint a ruling that doesn’t exist, section something, paragraph something, anything that makes sense. I’m thinking back to the initial hearings, ten men at a time, shackled together like constellations. I’m thinking because I can’t act. I’m thinking back to my tour of this meat-packing plant just after the raid; I’d never seen so much blood. They call this, the heart land. The man is staring at the paper in front of him though he can’t read it. I see a prayer caught in his neck, a curse lost in his trembling hands, as if his words know the way to his lips but panic on the way there, squeezing through capillaries and erupting silently through pores. There is no choice here, no lesser of two evils. So he cries. A stronger man than I’ll ever be. He talks, and the interpreter doesn’t bother. We all know what’s being said. For a moment we drown in the Guatemalan sunset over Iowa. I used to think that some people were haves and others have-nots, and that it was my responsibility as a moral man to help those less fortunate than me. But I see now that some people are haves because some people are have nots; the very rhythm of this land is built on up beats and down beats. Dance with me to the killing floor, and I may not be the one who cuts you, but I will drink, and be sustained. The man is staring at me now, peeling back cotton, peeling back skin, desperately chipping away at my sternum, hoping to find something underneath to hold on to. They call this the heart land. If these walls could talk, they would bleed. He signs the paper, guilty, and I am left wondering how I would plead.