673: New Town
673: New Town
I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.
Most of my friends have family histories that include some level of outsider experience. Whether they were immigrants from Mexico or Central America or Vietnam or immigrants from Ireland or Poland or Somalia, or expatriates living outside the United States, the stories of family and how their lives were made in new places always fascinates me and humbles me. In order to enter a new country, to call a new country home, one must figure out how to survive there. That work of survival is not work for the faint of heart.
When I think about the importance of writing, I think often of how it’s essential to remember that writing is an ongoing global endeavor. It is not simply a Twitter battle about whether or not to get a master of fine arts degree in writing. For many writing is a record of their lives, and an effort to report and transform their experiences. This is true the world over. Everyone in the South is often talking about how it’s important to remember that not all writing takes place in New York. I think it’s also important to remember that not all writing takes place in the United States.
The fact that language can be translated and words and experiences can be shared feels increasingly miraculous to me. We praise the journalists who are risking and losing their lives in the invasion of Ukraine and underscore how essential it is for us to hear those stories and I feel the same way about poetry. As William Carlos Williams once wrote,
It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.
Today’s poem does the work of showing us what it is to try to fit into a new place that does not want you to be there. Both mythic and true, the poem invites us to acknowledge the experience of the outsider.
by Aleksandar Hemon
When you enter a town follow its customs, Praise the people and their kindness, Kiss their flags, groom their peacocks, Love their wars, leaders, and politeness. The people will like you, open the doors wide. They may lock their pantries, slap and hide Their daughters, but never because of you. You’re a nice good one, not the other kind. They’ll watch you from their high windows, Grin from behind the doors with spy holes, Ask who you are, where you’ve come from, What you think of these shores of freedom. They’ll adore you for your garbled words, Teach you to speak as everyone should. They’ll say, All this is a work in progress, So we’ll ask you to trim our branches, Water our lawns, manage our kitchens. If a man is liked by his fellow men, he is liked by God, he is rewarded in heaven. His before-life shall matter to none of us. At night they’ll lock the iron gate, give you A knife and blanket, keep you outside, safe. There might be wind and rain, or even snow, Night beasts with their howls. If you do awake The following morning, the gate shall fling open, And you’ll be welcomed and disremembered. When you enter the town, follow its customs, Praise the good people, our kindness, endless.
"New Town" by Aleksandar Hemon. Used by permission of the poet.