Alan Michael Parker’s Poem, ‘Feti’s Border Crossing’

American poet Alan Michael Parker.

I’m a lazy poetry anarchist. That is, as much as I’m all about people being as creative and inventive as possible when it comes to poetry, I just don’t have the attention span or patience or whatnot to read something too avant-garde. For example, I saw a poem where it was words as if cut out from a magazine superimposed over a beautiful (but dark) image. Maybe the poem itself was beautiful, but I noped out of there. I just can’t do it! I’m not going to strain my eyes to figure out the poem. I don’t want to work too hard to read something beautiful! Is that bad?

In any event, I say all that to say, I read a poem that, ironically, is outside the bounds of normal poetry that I did enjoy, perhaps because it didn’t take all that much work to read and its usurpation of boundaries to make a point about boundaries was powerful. I’m talking about American poet, essayist and novelist, Alan Michael Parker, and his poem, “Feti’s Border Crossing.” This is actually a quite recent poem (as part of the “poem-a-day” the Academy of American Poets does), published on September 16th.

I can’t even do an excerpt of it like I normally would do, so aside from linking it, I will describe it. The poem is set-up like a bingo card: Five columns by five rows, or 25 boxes. Because the traditional way with the English language is to read left to right, down, left to right, down, etc., that is how I read the poem. When reading it that way, the top column would read as:

“To meet my first grandson. / The zipper sticks on the fanny pack. / Pretend to not understand. / Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. / It’s just a cake.”

The character in this poem is trying to cross a border and is being interrogated, in some respects, by whomever is the security person at the border. What I like is the repetition of the cake: It’s just a cake; honey, lemon, cardamom; the cake? I baked it; the cake’s a gift. To me, that represents the absurdity of the entire situation better than other lines, albeit those are still important, like “And what were you doing in the Sudan,” or, “Memorize: 141 Sycamore Drive” because they’re so concerned about a cake! What is it a bomb cake? Is there a machine gun waiting to pop out of the cake? Is it a cake with anthrax icing?! I mean, come on!

Interspersed through what seem like interrogatory lines are musings about the situation itself, such as quoting Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who said, “The other assumption is the changing character of societies.” Thiong’o (given his fuller context here) was making the argument, as I understand it, that a society’s values are developed generationally, hold the society together as such, and therefore, are more conservative in nature to protect that “glue,” as it were. While those cultural values are connected to the economic and political life, it is less prone to rapid changes. We find our self-image through culture because of it’s relative stability. And so, what I think Parker might be getting at is that our self-image as a society, as a nation, is tied into who we think is allowed within that nation. That is obviously a fierce debate within the United States and has been for at least 20-some years in modern times, and goes back historically as well.

Parker also talks about how a “nation is a map is an army.” Indeed: A nation is quite literally defined by its boundaries upon a map and those boundaries are enforced by an army, however that manifest. The Border Patrol is going to protect the domestic sovereignty of the United States from those trying to cross the border “illegally” and the actual army is going to protect domestic sovereignty from any foreign powers or nations who would seek to breach it or cause harm “us.” Heck, we even extend that notion of sovereignty to the idea of “American interests,” which is obviously a broad geopolitical term.

All the while through these questions, both absurd and serious, and the inner monologue that is occurring to memorize, to think about the plane experience, of Thiong’o’s musings, Parker’s character in the poem is also putting on a smile, as one square reads, “You have such a nice smile.” Because you must keep smiling through it all. Anything less than a smile would probably appear suspicious and worthy of further probing.

I really quite like this poem; there is much to unpack. And I’m biased as well because I think borders are dumb and anything that further illuminates their absurdity, as this poem does, I appreciate. What do you take from it?

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