Border Wounds: On Saretta Morgan’s “Alt-Nature”

By Rachel CarrollFebruary 6, 2024

Border Wounds: On Saretta Morgan’s “Alt-Nature”

Alt-Nature by Saretta Morgan

IN HER SUPPLE COLLECTION Alt-Nature (2023), Saretta Morgan presents ambidextrous poems that palpate the edges of many different borders. Morgan composed the poems in this collection, which follows two chapbooks, during a five-and-a-half-year period while living between the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. The outcome is poetry that examines state-sponsored racial violence with compassion and scrupulous ethical consideration, hovering between ecstasy and excruciation. Since the United States implemented the immigration policy of “Prevention Through Deterrence” in 1994, the Sonoran Desert has become a charnel house stretching dozens of miles. Prevention Through Deterrence uses increased border policing, fencing, and surveillance to funnel border-crossing migrants into the “hostile terrain” of the desert. Whereas previously migrants would attempt less treacherous passage by crossing closer to urban ports of entry, they must now contend with dangerous temperatures, dehydration, animal attacks, and other environmental hazards of the wilderness. This has led to thousands of migrant deaths, casualty numbers that we might associate with a war. These statistics are necessarily undercounted since they only include recovered remains.

Such dangers are considered in “Consequences upon arrival (i),” the first in a five-part poem series appearing at intervals throughout Alt-Nature. The unknown “we” of the poem is acutely aware of their precariousness: “A simple degree toward the wrong coordinate and the moment could change completely.” Following fruit-drunk bees also migrating downriver, the speaker recounts,

We woke to the doorframe at the edge of dunes, which we’d always believed
was a metaphor. But there ajar along the sagged sand fencing.

We said this with care, though the sagging was one of hostility. We said,
Someone should fix that.

The image alludes to an immigration system that is often called “broken,” as if it were a dilapidated latch. However, record spending on immigration enforcement, including a proposed $25 billion for US Customs and Border Patrol and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, hardly suggests indifference.

It is not only the migrant’s journey that causes people to gather in the militarized desert. The reader encounters the border as a collision point for the global and transhistorical violence of racial capitalism and empire. The poems reveal how the current migrant humanitarian crisis is braided with centuries of anti-Blackness, transatlantic slavery, various forms of incarceration, wars visible and invisible, and the ongoing conquest of Indigenous peoples. We are in the habit of considering these plights separately, but Alt-Nature shows their entanglement. Morgan organizes with No Más Muertes/No More Deaths, as well as About Face: Veterans Against the War, and it feels as though this activism informed the conscientious precision of the poems, as well as their attunement to the mutuality of settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, and militarism. Morgan’s insights into the interdependence of these three modes of state violence unfold with devastating insight in poems such as “Dominant orientation lights a corridor wide as Mexico’s northern border,” which references images of African American cavalrymen stationed in Arizona during the early 20th century. Readers moved by the book’s topics will appreciate that 50 percent of all proceeds will be donated to No More Deaths Phoenix.

In Alt-Nature, the border is a raw wound. Scars, “pussing stitches,” inflammations, bruises, and disfigurations break the skin of the poems. As the projects of empire and racial capitalism are perpetually unfinished, requiring constant maintenance, the wounds are repeatedly reopened. The collective voice in “Consequences upon arrival (ii)” explains, “This thorn was a fundamental characteristic of our sides. // History was outlined in our ruin of stitches, re-scaled specifically as though we weren’t there.” As the border carves through the land, it also scars the bodies of the people living in it through ecological and cultural destruction, as well as family separation. In this way, land and body are shown to be utterly entwined. For example, the vast lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation span the US-Mexico border and encompass most of the Sonoran Desert. Their territories were split in two as the southwestern border of the United States was incised through war and duplicity. As Morgan writes in the prose poem “Whether the border looks out from eight hundred and fifty eyes, or two, the MBQ remains few though on the rise”:

Though the consequences weren’t immediately visible, the Gadsden
Purchase in 1854 drove a then-invisible boundary through the Tohono
O’odham Nation. That policy/line superimposed Venn diagrams of
tribal/settler-colonial/international spheres that increasingly criminalize
and restrict tribal peoples from caretaking lands, engaging in prayer, and
practicing traditional climate-responsive migratory patterns that alleviate
environmental stress.

This forced separation is not unique to the Tohono O’odham, but a recurring strategy of capture. Through the transatlantic slave trade, Black people were kidnapped and routinely torn from family and kin through sale. Federally run boarding schools abducted and abused Indigenous children while attempting to eradicate their cultures and communities. Today our immigration system continues to separate loved ones regularly, not only through detention but also through manifold practices of border enforcement and removal. The familial ruptures created by border enforcement are taken up in the poem “For Francees, because she said, One day maybe you’ll write a poem about us,” which follows a mother fighting to reunite with her daughter after being removed (deported) from the United States.

An anemic phrase like “removal proceedings” sanitizes the anguish of people living through forced removal and conceals the complexity of their lives. Alt-Nature delivers a critique of this administrative discourse while searching for a tongue that can say what desperately needs to be said. As Morgan writes in “If skin passes always through language, texture is compelled by desire”: “I want language for what the government did to my body,” a mode of understanding beyond “the officer’s science.” Morgan channels the voice of the bureaucrat idly pushing death around with his pencil, summoning the abstract and supposedly neutral terms we use to talk about the terrible things that humans do to each other. The people in Morgan’s poems are trying to survive “conflicts,” “conditions,” “contexts,” and “consequences.” These words deflect through generality, euphemistic. The technocrat’s argot seems to always bring the violence in: “[T]he context arrived with an animal in its mouth. It further proposed the geography.”

We would be foolish not to be wary of the wolfish context’s geography. The cartographer claims to see the whole world at once, but Alt-Nature suggests that we must draw maps from another vantage. Throughout the collection, Morgan ties the language of administrating violence to the concept of scale, as in a map in 1:24 scale. In her critique, Morgan draws from scholar Mary Pat Brady’s Scales of Captivity: Racial Capitalism and the Latinx Child (2022) which is prominently quoted in “For Francees.” Brady argues that scale is a fundamental tool of global racism and colonialism. Both require the belief in a single view of the world, everything ordered by a logic of white supremacy and property. Scale enables this perspective, allowing the world to be sized up and down, facilitating the coordinated flow of commodities, ideas, armies, capital, and people. Referencing the 16th-century Jesuit theologian Juan Maldonado, who imagined flying to the moon in order to “visualize the entire surface of the earth as one whole unit,” Brady writes that “built into scale is an assumption that the view from the moon offers truth, that the world is one and can be homogenized as such […] Scale underpins the coloniality of power and, as a habit of thought, helps establish and maintain a global order of racialized peoples.”

Morgan’s examination of scale is most noticeable in “Whether the border.” Each section of the prose poem (referenced earlier) is headed by a set of geographic coordinates matching a location associated with that section, such as Morgan’s campsite in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, the site of an academic talk by eminent Black studies scholar Hortense Spillers, or a Marine Corps Air Station near Yuma, Arizona. The coordinates can be entered into Google Maps for an aerial view captured by satellites. Zooming in and out, dragging your cursor to trace the roads traveled in the poem, you may peruse a two-dimensional visualization of the poem’s geography. While the maps do provide some interesting, even helpful, details, the insufficiency of their perspective is made obvious by the richness and ambiguity of the poem itself. By foregrounding the precision of the geographic coordinates, Morgan highlights the inadequacy of what the map can tell us about the land. The intimacies between human, animal, and desert that provide the spiritual, erotic, and political center of the poems in Alt-Nature defy capture by scale:

We stumble through language and subject positions, the web of desires
and antagonisms our bodies emerge, upon contact with systematically
exploited lands. Lands that still function as long, shallow graves. And that
collect a sky so stunning that unless it’s you who are dying, you forget at
times how fresh they are, the graves.

The coordinates can name a point in space, but not the mutable, sensorial relations in and with that space. However formidable the reach and sophistication of the mapmaker’s tools, some things escape the colonizer’s view.

As we rejoin the choral voice in “Consequences upon arrival (iii),” we are reminded that state violence can be haltered by believing its own fabulations: “To foil the context was to outrun the authority’s imagination. And to refuse all explanations of why what we felt was not real.” Poetry is very good at making a run for it. Indeed, Alt-Nature begins with the encouraging fact that there are blind spots, and they can be used advantageously, even if that also means living in constant vigilance: “We had very good reason to believe that the authorities were lying. Were not omnipresent. Which meant the authorities would at some moment arrive.” Alt-Nature gropes for a language that might recover the sensual entanglement between human, land, and animal after the severances and enclosures of empire. Against the orderly regulation of the sentence, the poetic line cracks open the syntax that installs subjects and objects into their proper places.

Alt-Nature suggests that if scale and administrative language perpetuate an illusion of total control over land and people, both transformed into property, then we must look to the wild entanglement of humans in ecology to find an anti-colonial perspective. In “Dearth-light,” an aching love poem that sets much of the tone for the human and nonhuman morphology underpinning an emergent ecological tongue, Morgan writes:

More music, palmed casings. This love story a horse still drunk from war,
where I am the incredible absence of her jaw. A soft pink gaining.

You say Dearth is no name for a horse.

Here, how she rises
from every pussing wound.

The officers gouge jasper eyes
from the mud. I love you.

“Dearth-light” speaks the soma of land, human, and animal that scale denies:

And in the tissue between floodplains and the officer’s science. And
the quiet between and want for shade, the hooded eyes and fluid body.

Gentle body for whom I lie down.

The imagery murmurs with full desire for the beloved with all her wounds, scarred by the officer’s gouging in the earth. Love exists amid incredible violence, through the tender daubing of the wound.

The idea of “care” has been co-opted in many unhelpful ways, which makes me hesitant to use it here. However, I don’t know another word for the ethos of fully felt, diligent attention that Morgan articulates throughout Alt-Nature. We must care for the stitches that do not heal, for the body that is inseparable from soil and mountain, from horses, beetles, jaguars, and saguaros. So many bodies are living in impeded repair, still desired, still loved. In tending those scars, one is not only caring for the person but also the desert, and vice versa. This practice is not necessarily straightforward. As the speaker expresses in “Whether the border” while gazing out at the wilderness ruined by cattle ranching, struggling to imagine it looking another way, “I say to my dog, Federica: This, lady, is where we practice faith. We believe that the world was different. We believe that it can be different again. Our part in this process is an anxiously evolving question.”

LARB Contributor

Rachel Carroll is the author of For Pleasure: Race, Experimentalism, and Aesthetics (2023) and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


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