Adrienne Rich Keeps Immigrants Human

Chaplin, Purviance in “The Immigrant”


Donald Trump imperils the souls of his followers by encouraging them to demonize the Other. He did this from the very first with his “rapists and murderers” characterization of Mexican immigrants, and in the final days of the 2018 election he has been ratcheting up his attacks. To enter into his vision is to embark on a dark journey.

Adrienne Rich counteracts this danger with her simple but powerful “Prospective Immigrants Please Note,” which helps us identify with those heading towards the United States border. All Americans, excluding Native Americans and those forced here against their will, had ancestors who grappled with whether to come or to stay put. Entering into the decision-making process of today’s immigrants prompts us to relive our own family histories.

Imagine the desperate Hondurans as versions of your own grandparents or great-grandparents or people further back. They, after all, also launched themselves into the void. Or as Rich puts it, went through the door:

Prospective Immigrants Please Note

By Adrienne Rich

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself makes no promises.
It is only a door.

Discussing the poem with Bill Moyer in 1995, Rich frames the choice as one of imagining. Are you willing to see what might be seen? Or do you hold on to what you already know?

I think in this poem, what I am talking about is the choice that we can make, to move deeper into things, or simply to live worthily, maintain your attitudes, hold your position, even die bravely, but not to see what might have been seen. Not to grasp what might have been grasped. And that is a choice, for us all, whether in poetry or in life.

While the poem appears to suspend judgment, I can’t help but think that Rich has weighed in on the side of the dreamers. She herself feels compelled to “move deeper into things,” as did her own Jewish and her Protestant ancestors. American has been populated by such dreamers and their descendants.

When we shut our door to immigrants, we tread upon dreams and become a stagnant society. In that way, Trump’s anti-immigrant attacks represent an existential threat to our foundational identity.

A poem like  “Prospective Immigrants” puts us in touch with our humanity and with our souls. In Rich’s words,

I believe that poetry is asking us to consider the quality of life. And it is reflecting on what makes it possible for us to continue as human. Under the barrage of brute violence, numbing indifference, trivialization, shallowness, that we endure.

Even when I was very young, I was reading poetry, looking for what it could tell me about how to live. For me, poetry has never, ever been just an escape from the world, an escape from history.

Poetry can’t do it alone, however, but must be followed up by action. Tomorrow Americans can vote to reject the forces of exclusion.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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