What I got away with!
Smuggling myths, memes and memories
I arrive with so much more than I declare
offering him my meticulous all-caps customs form
keeping tight two suitcases, slapped four times
with labels of the university address underlined
No, I don’t have even $1000 in cash
I answer solemnly, then smile, then don’t
Where would I even get that?
Yessir, only two suitcases to my name
They’ll have to suffice to build a whole life
What does he even know of what I left behind?
All he sees is me: riven, anxious, bursting
for the new world where I arrive
with not much to my name, even less to declare
Only two suitcases? He asks again
So little to declare in my suitcases with
clothes ironed into self-conscious shields
two pairs of new shoes for places on a paper map
no accounting for the first snow that’ll devour them
Will I need to sell the pieces of jewelry my mother
pressed with her tears into my hand?
Tears I won’t understand for another few decades
Customs guy barks again, but what else you bringing?
Any food in there? Suspicion deepens his lines
I assure him there is none. No, nothing, nothing really
He slaps my passport back, turns away, lets me pass!
I hesitate to go. So “fresh off the plane”, I’ll come to laugh
Holding dear all tangible goods that cling back to me
No guilt for what I didn’t declare, besides my literal baggage
I didn’t mention the taste on my tongue
which will torture my senses for rebirth
I didn’t mention the map of home
imprinted on my skin bursting to build
I didn’t mention colors my eyes thirst for
in flowers I’ve never seen before
I didn’t mention that old music that rings
every morning trailing my dreams
I didn’t mention the torch I carry
for familiar warmth and touch and love
Sprouting new shoots on my memory tomb
signed with this new world’s epitaph
Don’t ask an immigrant what she has in her suitcase
She’ll surprise you with mounds of denial
All that she brings hidden in her are stories of past life threads
And if you did demand it, she couldn’t show you anyway
She’d have to tear off her skin, dissect every cell to look
Even then all you’d see is blood and heart and sweat
You still won’t locate it, all that resides, persists
Yet everything of the new she will remake in her own way
You’ll have to come find her decades later to see…
…what she got away with!
-Reena | 2022
I wrote this poem remembering the time I first arrived in the United States as an earnest graduate student. In a literal sense it’s a laughing remembrance of the third degree I received, tremulously proffering my single entry F-1 visa. As is done with all entrants, my paperwork and belongings, along with my motives for entry, were thoroughly examined by immigration and customs officials.
The poem is also an ode to what those gatekeepers couldn’t have known i.e., what I carried in my heart, head and habit. They probably extrapolated in broad strokes where my life was headed from the ambition, toil, and social conservatism of most immigrants. But my particular sensibilities on ideas of home, what constitutes a happy life, a redefinition of self or the acceptance of a dual - perhaps multitudinous - identity within which I would eventually find comfort and meaning, were lost on them. All of those I stole into this country to build this life.
Internally, the poem is an incredulous yet affectionate recognition of a younger me who, completely unbeknownst to herself, carried the seeds of her own many transformations across that border. All of it was written in that arrival but it can take a lifetime to transcribe such a script. Sometimes even that is not enough and a life goes by unread.
…my particular sensibilities on ideas of home, what constitutes a happy life, a redefinition of self or the acceptance of a dual - perhaps multitudinous - identity within which I would eventually find comfort and meaning, were lost on them. All of those I stole into this country…
The irony, the argument (mostly with self) and the humor of it all is perhaps best illustrated by my journey as a cook. Because I went from being a strident feminist refusing to enter the kitchen to falling hopelessly in love with cooking. Oh how mightily the mighty fall — or at least reconsider their premises :-)
In any case, there was nothing in that freshly arrived graduate student back then to suggest such a radical change. Quite the contrary. But what she didn’t realize is what an exacting foodie she was, and within that sensibility were sown the seeds of her transformation.
…I didn’t mention the taste on my tongue
which will torture my senses for rebirth…
Allow me to tell you that story — next time.
For now tell me if the poem resonates and what skeins and themes it unravels for you from the roads - immigrant or not - you’ve traveled. I always love to hear your thoughts!
A new book and a new vehicle for some of my poems! "Starry Nights: Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley" is an endeavor of the heart, a labor of love and an act of startling generosity by two women - Jyoti Bachani and Pragalbha Doshi - and several other collaborators I have never met in person. It is a measure of love in a world where we seem to have forgotten how to give without an accounting to and for our countable benefit, our factional loyalties and our narrow prejudices.
I became lucky in "meeting" Jyoti who unhesitatingly invited me to participate and included ten of my poems in this new offering that compiles work from startling talent among the diaspora in my 'hood aka Silicon Valley. The book is now out on Amazon and I hope you will support this 100% volunteer initiative by getting a copy for yourself and others.
For all books with my poetry see here.
Ha! The feminist that died an ignominious death and resurrected as another avatar at the alter of life! The tale of Mona Mohan :D PS Cooking is still a challenge for me !!
Such a brilliant piece of writing, Reena. It resonates with me deeply. Thanks for reminding me of a much younger me. The memories had begun to blur. How strange it is that our common experiences connect us in unexpected ways. I have the same relationship with cooking. I had never imagined that I would find cooking for my loved ones so therapeutic and in fact always thought I’d never step into a kitchen. How naive I was! Can’t wait to order your book. ❤️