Border: an edge, a fixed line that cannot be crossed though the body is flexible and made to perform unnatural acts. Standing there every body tells itself: I is invisible. I does not exist. Every body a ragged edge that tells itself there is no tear before passing into the invisible.
from [The street where women are marked]
Mia Ayumi Malhotra
I am preparing to leave for Central Asia. Kazakhstan. Almaty. I plan to write on hybridity: specifically, the aesthetic responses to. I quit my job, cancel some of what needs to be canceled. I spend September boxing belongings. I will depart around my thirty-third birthday, October 12, which passes unremarkably. I am not on a plane. Even my sentences take on a new flatness. The “I” statement dominates. Agency, illusion of.
I divide my time between my writing desk, also my eating desk, and my bed, also my reading space. (OK, that’s a slightly-disingenuous plea for sympathy). I run. I metro to Union Station, and walk briskly past the Capitol, where staffers in beige and gray topcoats confer. They may be Beltway Celebrities. Many of them appear relaxed, convivial, and yet their ease, I suspect, is borne from a larger conviction in Purpose. They smile as they talk into their phones. I buy a pretzel with mustard.
In the Library of Congress, I check out more books on the region. Confusion, murkiness dominates. How to “understand” Kazakhstan. Much of the prose is stilted and dry, centered around a Russia-no-longer. I wonder whether this is appropriate preparation, revisiting a past written by non-participants, analysts at a distance.
I am stunned by the fact of the Library, where I can sit until 9:30 at night under gilt and marble, grandeur and intricacy. Inscribed under the POETRY figure: HITHER, AS TO THEIR FOUNTAIN, OTHER STARS REPAIRING/IN THEIR GOLDEN URNS DRAW LIGHT. Milton. The librarians are kind, some ancient, some quirky. My favorite wears a bordeaux sweater-vest; his eyebrows knit together when I place too many books on reserve. I read a chapter on Karaganda, the steppe where the “special settlers” and prisoners labored together in service of the Soviet dream. “In Karaganda” used to be a derisive shorthand for “middle of nowhere.” I walk home, stopping to buy apples at the market. Almaty could be named after the apple, which originated, it is said, in Kazakhstan.
My visa is delayed. Every Monday, I draft an email inquiring about its status. I rake the leaves. I submit another apostilled document. I volunteer at the women’s shelter on N Street. I review Russian grammar, specifically verbs of motion, which have always given me trouble. Without the external imposition of routine, which I always railed against, thinking it took me away from real progress, real “work”, I am humbled to realize how circular my days, and, for a time, how arbitrary that to which I assign meaning, how rooted in gold-drenched past or glossy future.
Is this between-state limbo or purgatory? Friends are sympathetic. Any news on the visa? is my t-shirt slogan. I am glib, invoking Kafka and Gogol, but I am also lucky, to be waiting and able to assume food, roof, friends, soup, Spotify, savasanah. Every week, the news, then worse news. Ferguson, ISIS, Ebola, UVA, the CIA torture report. I notice the word “existential” iterated more frequently on the radio.
To be in transition is exquisite and excruciating. I swim in binaries. Inertia and stasis, or motion and opportunity? Through their rigorous queries of interior and exterior, the poets of DB 20 claim the latter. They see the juxtaposition of ritual and transition as an invitation to make meaning, but also to push against habits of meaning-making. “The key to ruin?” asserts Kamilah Aisha Moon. “Letting rot languish/no matter one's state.” Janine Joseph continues this resistance of “rot” when she explodes the conventions of the immigrant narrative “Am I some sort of hero/—carrying in and unpacking the boxes/I always packed for home? Bringing the visas,/then the vista,/and so much useless, sedimentary knowledge to bore/the company for years.” Lisa Sewell teases out the ethics of control and entitlement: “Wanting to pledge allegiance against my parents’ orders/subscribe to the myth of having it both ways/of reading against the grain for different outcomes/that are not consequences, even as the awful and momentous/transpire in our name on the rocky shale of a desert theatre.”
Language also becomes the scalpel to extract gesture and performance from authenticity. “They who had seen us in pictures, in/ dreams, their ideas of us a different thing than how/we knew ourselves, /which we had to accept, and did; thinking of our /small, insufficient gifts to them allowed us to sleep/if lightly,” writes Liz Robbins in “No Shoulder.” Anna Claire Hodge’s “Instructions to the Host” is a wry autopsy of merry-making. “Take photographs. You will want/to remember how happy you seemed.” Mia Ayumi Malhotra explores the oppression inherent to this “seeming” via the body in her dazzling prose poem [The street where women are marked], which concludes, hauntingly: “In the street a woman calls out but there is a blank where her mouth should be.” Meg Day illustrates that submission can be antithetical to silence in her ecstatic meditation,“Hymn to a Landlocked God.” “Make me a bird, Lord;/ make me a man. /Make me a barn/with a spine so swayed/it pulls back my neck/to crane toward the sky.” As ever, the lyrics and translations and erasures and experiments of DB20, including new work from Denise Duhamel, Mộng-Lan, sam sax, Sho Sugita, Marcelo Castillo and many others, testify that boundaries, and borders, can also be refusals: to molder, decay, or rest on habits of mind. Refusals that are the precursor to re-birth. Hither, as to their fountain, other stars/Repairing, in their golden urns draw light…
Michelle Chan Brown’s Double Agent was the winner of the 2012 Kore First Book Award, judged by Bhanu Kapil. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Cimarron Review, The Missouri Review, Witness and other journals and anthologies. A Kundiman fellow and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Michelle has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, and others. She is currently en route to Almaty, Kazakhstan on a Fulbright. Find her online at www.michellechanbrown.com.