“To be an immigrant is to always live in some state of exile, even if its shadow seems to have grown faint inside us; you cannot forget your old homes, no matter how comfortingly familiar your new destination becomes, or you may end up feeling less at home in your new world than in the one you left.”—Gabrielle Bellot, from “American Art is Immigrant Art”
Unless you are indigenous to America, you have a story in your recent or distant past about leaving a homeland and arriving in this country. For a long time, I have loved the clever structure of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Lisel Mueller’s “Beginning with 1914,” because it begins long before she was born as if a camera is gliding over her great-grandparents’ terrain. The poem opens:
Since it always begins
in the unlikeliest place
we start in an obsolete country
on no current map. The camera
glides over flower beds,
for this is a southern climate.
We focus on medals, a horse,
on a white uniform,
for this is June. The young man
waves to the people lining the road,
he lifts a child, he catches
a rose from a wrinkled woman
in a blue kerchief. Then we hear shots
and close in on a casket
draped in the Austrian flag.
Thirty-one days torn off a calendar.
Bombs on Belgrade; then Europe explodes.
We watch the trenches fill with men,
the air with live ammunition.
A close-up of a five-year-old
living on turnips. Her older sister,
my not-yet-mother, already
wearing my daughter’s eyes,
is reading a letter as we cut
to a young man with thick glasses
who lies in a trench and writes
a study of Ibsen. I recognize him,
he is going to be my father,
and this is his way of keeping alive.
Snow. Blood. Lice. Frostbite.
Grenades. Stretchers. Coffins. Snow.
Telegrams with black borders.
On the wide screen my father returns
bringing his brother’s body;
my mother’s father brings back his son’s
from the opposite edge. They come together
under the oaks of the cemetery.
All who will be my family
are here, except my sister,
who is not yet imagined.
Neither am I…..
Step 1. Time Travel Backwards
Pick up your imaginary camera and travel back in time until you arrive at an image of your family’s history, record details if you know what they are or imagine them—the country, the village, the history of the time period. Mueller gives us WWI; what history preceded you and affected your family?
Step 2. Visualize Your Family History
In this next step you are still unborn. Your camera is recording the actions of your forebears. In Mueller’s poem these connect, as so many of our immigrant stories do, to survival. Often this is because of persecution, violence or war—there is survival and there is loss.
Do you know if this is part of your family history? Who would it have affected? Notice the details and take a cue from them. Notice the descriptions of both life and death.
Step 3. Remember Your Parents Were Once Children!
You are still unborn! Who was your mother when she was a child? Where did she live? What did she do? Does she have an immigrant story? You are imagining and writing about your not-yet-mother. How old is she in your poem? Your camera is recording these details.
In Mueller’s poem we meet her father during the war; what about your father? Were your parents already in America when they were young children? What does this mean for you as their yet unborn child?
Step 4. What Brought You to America?
Mueller uses “time-lapse photography” to allow us to move through her immigrant story. We learn that she is Jewish and that her family left Nazi Germany. Her images contain swastikas, fear, threats, and flames. Then exile.
You may not be an immigrant or even first- or second-generation. If you don’t know your immigrant story, you can leap to immigration today and widen your compassion for today’s immigration “crisis.” Think border walls, think how many people still do not understand what it is like to flee one country and seek asylum in another—how the journey itself is treacherous.
Of course, there is no single reason for people who immigrate, but you have not arrived here on a whim—nor does anyone who is seeking asylum. If you do not know your story then leap to someone else’s. Our borders are crowded but your camera is ready!
5. Get the Picture: Who Are You Now?
For Mueller, who sees her hair turn white even before she is born because her poem takes the liberty of jumping back and forward in time, the poem ends with a “photo” of herself in a surprisingly safe and joyful life. It is not a “selfie” so much as a summation of one woman’s immigrant story.
The camera sums up the even flow / of many years in a shot of a river. / The principals from part one / are missing, except for me / who am the connection. The time is now, / and I am playing myself.
—Liesel Mueller, from “Beginning with 1914”
And you, where are you in your story at this present moment, “playing yourself?”
Interested in learning more? Join Merna for her class, Poems of Location and Dislocation: Leaving and Finding Home.
Merna Ann Hecht, nationally known storyteller, poet and teaching artist founded the Stories of Arrival: Refugee & Immigrant Youth Voices Poetry Project. Merna’s writing, activism for social justice, and teaching are guided by her commitment to bring marginalized voices through story and poetry to wide community visibility. Her work appears in Teachers & Writers Magazine, Our Food, Our Right: Recipes for Food Justice, Making Mirrors: Writing and Righting Refugees, and other books and journals. Merna has a master’s degree from the University of Washington with additional international training in theater in education, drama therapy, and expressive arts modalities. During her recent travels in Europe, she volunteered with asylum seekers in NGO’s for women, children, and unaccompanied minors bringing storytelling, drama, and poetry into their programs. She is the Vashon Island 2017–19 Poet Laureate.