Barbara Kingsolver’s “Justicia” and “Refuge”

“I wasn’t prepared for the knowledge of what one nation will do to another,” Barbara Kingsolver explains near the end of the Introduction to her poetry collection, Another America/Otra America, continuing:

But knowledge arrived regardless. I saw that every American proverb has two sides, can be told in two languages; that injustice does not disappear when you look away, but seeps in at the back of the neck to poison your soul. The unspeakable things can be survived, and sometimes there is joy on the other side. (pp. xvii-xix)

And so Kingsolver presents a collection of poems, each translated into Spanish by Rebeca Cartes, written over many years and finally published in 1998.

“My way of finding a place in the world is to write one,” Kingsolver concludes. “But when I want to howl and cry and laugh all at once, I’ll raise up a poem against the darkness. This is my testament to two Americas, and the places I’ve found, or made, or dreamed in between” (p. xix).

This idea of two Americas grounded in culture and language, poems now two decades old and well before the rise of Trump’s America, offers a way to navigate what seems to be contradictory claims: Trump’s politics represent enduring ideologies and patterns that in fact reveal who America is while also confronting the nation and the world with a unique bravado and crassness that deserves an equally resolute response.

“Justicia” and “Refuge” speak to historical problems with the American character and current tensions inflamed by Trump’s rhetoric and policies.

“The feral incantations of our dreams” begins “Justicia,” a title evoking “justice” but also (possibly) the flower of that name. Nature is always prominent in Kingsolver, and this poem is grounded in the lone wolf (given a human pronoun):

His orange pain becomes a desert sunset.
His hunger perceives the scent of blood
on the wind,

the sleep of sheltered animals,
everything
but borders.

Kingsolver investigates civilization (“borders”) and the wild, the wilderness (“feral”), a paradoxical tension in which it is the wild that is framed as violent and dangerous but that is often sacrificed.

Next, Kingsolver turns to the politics of race and geography:

The television says McAllen, Texas,
is closer to Managua than to Washington, D.C.,
and housewives in McAllen

check their own
possibly Bolshevik eyes in the mirror
and lock the windows.

The poem ends with a crescendo of “peaceful,” “liberty,” and “justice” building to “the wolf deserves a meal.”

Reading “Justicia” in 2018, in the wake of Trump’s incessant demonizing of Mexicans and invoking images of immigrants as “animals,” I am compelled to suggest Kingsolver is offering a powerful exploration of racism and nationalism folded into the image of the lone wolf reappropriated as a sympathetic symbol of the dignity all living creatures deserve.

Quoted in full in Feroza Jussawalla’s “Cultural Rights Theory: A View from the U.S.-Mexican Border,” “Refuge” fits equally as well into the state of mangled U.S. politics under Trump.

Kingsolver dedicates the poem “[f]or Juana, raped by immigration officers and deported”—replayed with an awful intensity during the current debate about separating children from parents seeking political asylum and reports of children being sexually assaulted by immigration officials.

“Give me your hand,/He will tell you”—the opening inviting tone triggers for me Adrienne Rich’s equally disturbing interrogation of how the criminal justice system subjects victims of rape to a second assault in her “Rape”: “There is a cop who is both prowler and father.”

“[B]arbed wire,” “desert,” and “hunger” create next an oppressive tone, building to “I will/take your hand./Take it” and then:

First
He will spread it
Fingers from palm
To look inside,
See it offers nothing.
Then
With a sharp blade
Sever it.

Again paralleling Rich’s poem, the language is both violent and sexual, dehumanizing and invasive.

The final stanza is disturbing in its simplicity detailing the officer keeping the severed hand as a token of “the great/desirability/of my country.”

In these two poems, civilization—specifically America—is the rapacious aggressor, the taker that objectifies the weak, as Others, foreign, less than. This is the America that is contrasted with the America claimed.

Kingsolver’s poetic recreation of two Americas, another America, resonates in awful ways that should turn our stomachs, that may prompt us to turn our eyes.

“Another America” confronts us as not the America we claim to be; “another America” challenges us to become the ideal we have yet to achieve—a people devoted to human dignity, to enduring values such as each child is everyone’s child, such as there are no strangers, such as anything we have we will halve and share.

In her poems, essays, and fiction, Kingsolver implores us to be our better selves. I wonder if that is a dream also, an ideal, something we simply are not capable of being.

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