Summer reads 4: Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied

Javier Zamora, Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press 2017)

In the 1990s when Javier Zamora was nine years old, he made his way unaccompanied from El Salvador, evading US border protection, to meet up with his parents who had fled to the US to escape political persecution. He is co-founder of Undocupoets, a group that lobbied to increase opportunity for undocumented writers in the US.

This is his first published book. It’s a collection of poems that revolve around of his harrowing solo journey, including its before and after, not as a linear narrative but mostly in the way memories arise piecemeal: a moment of terror in the desert; recollections of his beloved abuela (grandmother), who he’s unlikely ever to see again; fragments first person narratives from his mother, his father and others; an address to the then newly elected President Trump; moments of longing for his home in El Salvador … I’m not trying to be a smart-arse, but the book is a poetic documentation of the process of becoming what is known in the USA as an undocumented person. In the present time of the poems, he still lives with the possibility of la Migra bursting into his life.

That little boy was unaccompanied when he made his way to the US, but the poetry is alive with relationships. That is, he never lost the sense that there were people who cared about him deeply – the terror was that he might never see them again.

The author photo on the back cover shows a smiling young man, apparently relaxed and confident: Look, he could be saying, I have come through. One poem in the collection, ‘Exiliados’, has that feeling. It appears toward the end of the book, and gathers tremendous emotional force from all that has gone before:

Exiliados
for Monica Sok

The title and dedication do a lot of work. Like most of the Spanish words that pepper the poems, ‘Exiliados’ is easily understood by the non-Spanish speaker. Zamora does us the courtesy of not providing a glossary, leaving us to deal with it if we don’t know his mother language – his own linguistic upheaval is central to the story, and any difficulty we have can only help grasp it. The dedication is to a person whose name comes from a non-English speaking culture. You don’t need to know any more about Monica Sok to get the poem completely, but as it happens she is a Cambodian-American poet whose book A Nail the Evening Hangs On was published in 2020 by the same company that published Unaccompanied. Before we reach the first line, we know that the poem is addressed from one exile to another – exiles at least in the sense that they come from elsewhere and don’t belong to the mainstream white culture.

We didn't hold typhoons or tropics in our hands.
xxxI didn't reach across the table on our first date
xxxxxxat Cornelia Street Café.

Neither the tropics of El Salvador nor the typhoons of Cambodia are present at this meeting. Both people have left their homes behind. Other poems in the book name places in El Salvador, and when one of those places is unfamiliar to me I feel that that is no surprise to the poet. Here by contrast, when he names the Cornelia Street Cafe, it feels like a name-drop. And sure enough, the cafe has its own Wikipedia entry informing us that it has been voted one of the best places to listen to jazz music. Sadly, and perhaps fittingly in the context of so much pecariousness, the cafe closed down in 2018, after this book was published. But the point here is to establish that the meeting is happening in hip Manhattan.

It’s a date, but the speaker is tentative. His hands, like the hands of the other person, can’t bring his past life to the table. Nor can they reach out to make contact.

xxxxxat Cornelia Street Café. In my humid pockets,

my fists were old tennis balls thrown to the stray dog
xxxof love bouncing toward the Hudson down
xxxxxxto South Ferry.

More New York place names, references to humdrum Manhattan life where people throw dogs to balls and no one lives in fear of armed men in white vans. It’s romcom territory. His fists are sweating in his pockets at the prospect of love, but he’s too much the stray dog to be sure of his welcome.

xxxxxxto South Ferry. We didn't hold hands in that cold

October wind, but the waves witnessed our promise 
xxxto return to my cratered-deforested homeland,
xxxxxxand you to your parents', sometime in the future.

Two exiles, two New York poets, they speak of their homelands and the promise to return.

Then, us in the subway at 2 a.m. Oh the things I dreamed:
xxxa kiss to the back of your neck, collarbone, belly button, there
xxxxxxto kneel and bow my head, then return to the mole

next to your lips and taste your latitude together.
xxxInstead, I went home, you touched my cheek, 
xxxxxxit was enough.

What was a meeting of minds is now embodied, a moment of desire. (I don’t understand ‘latitude’, but I don’t care!) We don’t know if this was the first date that led to an intimate relationship, or if this touch on the cheek is as far as the romantic possibilities of the relationship have gone. Unlike a romcom, the poem isn’t concerned about that. Like many other poems in this collection, it focuses tightly on the moment.

In the first lines, hands were busy doing nothing – not holding places or origin, not reaching out, staying in pockets like old tennis balls that love might find, definitely not holding each other as their owners walked in the cold October wind. Now at last, the woman’s hand has made contact, and ‘it was enough’.

xxxxxxit was enough. I stood, remembering what it's like

to stand on desert dirt wishing stars would fall 
xxxas rain, on that huge dark country ahead of me.

‘The Future is dark,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1915 after a bout of depression, ‘which is the best way the future can be, I think.’ That’s how I read the ‘huge dark country’ here. When the nine-year-old arrived in the USA, and the future could have held anything. Now a young woman touches a young man’s cheek at 2 o’clock in the morning after they’ve talked for hours, and he feels the same sense of a vast unknown ahead, full of promise and possible danger.

This is a book that puts flesh on the bones of the continuing US headlines about the Mexican border, and especially the stories of unaccompanied children caged under President Trump. I don’t know if there has been anything quite like it about asylum seekers in Australia.

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