iv. Quién hablaría de la soledad del desierto
–– Raúl Zurita, “El Desierto de Atacama VII”


In Exodus/Éxodo, Ciudad Juárez photographer Julián Cardona writes of a large tree just outside of Sásabe, Sonora, where border-crossers discard their old clothes to put on new ones that make them look more “American.” In conversation with an undocumented worker in North Carolina, Cardona realized that he and the other man both had stopped beneath that same literal and symbolic marker of crossing. Cardona’s reflections on the pair’s exchange remind me of another commentary on trees, embedded in Leonard Schwartz’s heartfelt observations on the great Chilean writer Raúl Zurita’s “visionary poetics.” Schwartz muses,

Zurita’s poems might be figured as an eco-poetry in which the space between nature and history is closed up, once we realize that the work reimagines the entirety of the ocean in such a way as to include those thrown from planes into that ocean. And reimagines the mountains in such a way as to include the Disappeared thrown from planes into their snows until one can only speak of those mountains as containing those people. And renders the desert no longer conceivable except if the voices and the deaths in the desert are made a part of that desert.

Schwartz goes on to parse his references to the former Pinochet regime’s practice of wedding natural environs to its methods of dealing with political dissent and that practice’s effects on Zurita’s poetics by way of an eco (echo). Schwartz recalls that in the introduction to the anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry, Camille Dungy stakes the claim that African-American poets have a distinct relationship to the conceit of nature. In Dungy’s formulation, a tree can never just be a tree, but also functions as a rememory of lynching. Ecology holds trauma and promise simultaneously, is neither beautiful nor sublime per se, but becomes part of a larger built environment that regulates the policing and disciplining of ungrammatical bodies.

Photo/foto: b.a.n.g lab
Photo/foto: EDT 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab

A swath of border art and literature similarly has documented how the Sonoran Desert—on the southwestern border of the United States, on the northwestern border of Mexico—equals more than a desert, especially after 1994. Chantal Akerman’s early high-definition, multilingual De l’autre côté/From the Other Side, for instance, bears witness to the fallout effects of the years 1994 to 2001 in the region and beyond. Formally, the documentary depends in equal measure upon testimony and upon a series of high-lonesome tracking shots. De l’autre côté/From the Other Side begins in Agua Prieta, Sonora, with border dwellers’ firsthand accounts of losing relatives, of attempting to enter the United States. Akerman’s focus subsequently shifts to neighboring Douglas, Arizona. The filmmaker interviews a local restaurant owner, a married couple on their ranch, who reflect on their border fears after 9/11 (2001), a Mexican consulate, and a sheriff, who explains the on-the-ground effects of the Clinton administration’s Operation Gatekeeper.

Although all of the above segments of De l’autre côté/From the Other Side powerfully tug on viewers’ sympathies and antipathies, particularly in the wake of SB1070, another tactic of the film directly related to Operation Gatekeeper’s reconfiguration of border wall-fence ecologies, lends even higher definition to Akerman’s talking cure. Operation Gatekeeper, implemented in 1994, profoundly shifted Mexico-to-U.S. migrants’ border-crossing patterns. The policy displaced would-be undocumented entrants from the Light-Up-the-Border campaign stretches of Baja California-California to the alternately treacherous, increasingly narco-driven, intemperate zones of Sonora-Arizona’s “devil’s highway.” Akerman’s film undocuments the affective ironies generated by this displacement’s “privileged unknowing” production of the desert as border patrol. The filmmaker’s sustained attentions to place, her relentless, interminable scrutiny of landscapes and long-winded “silences,” in the style of her previous “images within images,” in De l’autre côté/From the Other Side are “arresting.” (They literally arrest the film’s development, eco-ing another layer of meaning to the word “arrest.”) De l’autre côté/From the Other Side slows down to magnify, to amplify the Agua Prieta-Douglas join of the border’s own alleged historical “emptiness” (in chronodevelopmentalist time) into a cacophonous roar. Or, more accurately, the film’s double portraiture of inhabitants and landscapes dialectically indexes the divide between the border as “discursive vector” and “just weather.”

In this regard, although seldom reckoned with in border, Latinx, and inter-American studies, De l’autre côté/From the Other Side forms part of a repertoire of cultural production that personifies to politicize the Sonoran Desert. In works that range from Cardona’s images of “brassieres hanging off bushes near Sásabe on the line at a place where guides are known to rape women coming north” to Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, the desert environment becomes an active agent in border enforcement, in informal literal and symbolic economies of trafficking, in effect contributing to the proliferating NAFTA-era connotations of the word disposability in the Mexican-U.S. borderlands.

Photo/foto: b.a.n.g lab
Photo/foto: EDT 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab

From this position I have pondered and grown into the form of [({ })] Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT) as an aesthetic intervention, too. When I began collaborating on TBT, I found myself writing poems that functioned best in museum, gallery, and university contexts. I wondered, “What would I want from a poem in the desert? Would I want a poem there at all?” I turned to my collaborator Brett Stalbaum, who’d co-authored the project’s code, with these questions, or rather with the intuition that the poems that I’d composed weren’t quite right for the project—not yet. We began to discuss the hubris of the poetics attached to TBT, to ponder what kind/s of poetry could tool as sustenance. Our conversations were connected to our ruminations’ echolocation of the tool as dislocative media. We wondered and wandered perpetually: What would/does it mean to strip locative media of its implicit urbanity?

I returned to the drawing board, approaching all of the above as a conceptual or formal conundrum. In other words, I connected the “poetry problem” to the ambitions of the project’s code, the specificities of the latter’s remediation of a GPS platform. Meanwhile, I began to spend more time in the desert. I tested a prototype of the tool against the landscape, against my own disorientation and technological “impairments.” Beneath the unforgiving glare of the landscape’s daytime sun, beneath the luminosity of its nighttime stars, I thought, “What would I absolutely need to know if I were on my way to one of TBT’s way-stations?” I turned to texts about desert survival: handbooks, military manuals, a guide for border-crossers briefly distributed by the Mexican government. I divvied up (with the help of Brett and others) the information I found—the indispensable from the expendable. I wrote pared down prose poems, ideologically neutral (Is any writing “ideologically neutral”?), procedural, if you will—a poem about locating the North Star, a poem about what to do if you are bitten by a rattlesnake or tarantula, poems that contained details about how to weather a sandstorm or a flash flood. I imagined one poem for every hour of the day, a series of twenty-four fragments in conversation with one another, in conversation with the previous museum-gallery-university series of poems that I’d composed.

At base, I worked from two assumptions. A desert is not just a desert. And, poetry-becoming-code/code-becoming-poetry could transubstantiate, translate into a lifesaving technology, sounding off.

Sultan, Terrie, ed. Chantal Akerman: Moving through Time and Space. Houston and New York: Blaffer Gallery/the Art Museum of the University of Houston, 2008.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Privilege of Unknowing: Diderot’s The Nun.” In Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Dungy, Camille T., ed. Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

De l’autre côté/From The Other Side. Directed by Chantal Akerman. Paris: ARTE France, 2002.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 64-81.

Schwartz, Leonard. “Zurita: On Raul Zurita’s Visionary Poetics.” Jacket2. Accessed July 25, 2012. http://jacket2.org/commentary/zurita. 

Bowden, Charles, and Julián Cardona. Exodus/Éxodo. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.

Zurita, Raúl. Purgatory. Translated by Anna Deeny. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Urrea, Luis Alberto. The Devil’s Highway: A True Story. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2004.