What a great poem to study with the back drop of the migrant crisis unfolding in Europe!
Rumens explores the frustrations and hypocrisy of racism and xenophobia within this poem through a trip through an immigration office. A rather zealous immigration officer demands his customers take a side in a perceived good vs. evil fight and be defined by their blood, colour and nationality rather than who they are.
Dendron – a branch connecting nerves, used in the sense that all the wires are used to communicate information back to the central nervous system of the country.
No sooner had one come down
Than he began building again.
My bricks, O my genuine bricks
Made of my genuine blood!
What would we be without borders?
So which one are you? he said
And stuck out his hand to me.
Birth certificate? Passport?
Which side are you on, which side?
Merrily he unrolled
Starry dendrons of wire
To give his wall ears and eyes.
Qualifications? he said.
Residence permit? Tattoo?
Which colour are you, which colour?
No colour, he said, no good.
He took my only passport,
He slammed it down on the wire.
My hand, O my genuine hand!
This is a border, he said.
A border likes blood. Which side’s
Your bloody hand on, which side?
Carol Rumens (1944-)
It’s frustrating that a lot of the more recent poets in our collection don’t really have much of an online history or biography.
Rumens is a British poet who has won numerous awards over the last 40 years for her work, while working as an academic teaching creative writing.
However, her poetry tackles key issues to have arisen in modern European history with a particular focus on suffering and persecution. Although I haven’t been able to find a specific date that this poem was composed, I would hazard a guess it directly relates to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but possibly written a little later, post 09/11 and the attack on the Twin Towers. These events seem to come out in the early part of the poem, but equally could relate to any other event that has seen a shift in xenophobic focus – I’ll explain this clearly below.
I can’t be much more specific that the anthology on this one.
It relates to travel in that it is set in an immigration office, but it is much more focus on the societal attitudes towards migration. On the one hand we have the frustration of a migrant who is being judged and on the other we have the dehumanising attitude of the immigration office who can only see in black or white (potentially quite literally) and passes judgement on the basis of race, ethnicity and nationality without a thought for who this traveller is.
In Europe at the moment you are probably aware that there is a crisis with the number of migrants fleeing war zones and trying to reach a safer haven where they can settle and get on with their lives. Obviously European attitudes towards this vary greatly, but there is huge amount of negativity and resentment towards these people and the burden they are placing upon different countries.
However, imagine the frustration of the ordinary families who are simply seeking a place to live their lives. Their worth is routinely judged based on their heritage, ethnicity and nationality. If they are risking their lives for the hope of a better future, you can only image how devastated they must feel when they are received in this way.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a wishy-washy liberal and I think we all understand why countries need migration regulations and why the current crisis cannot simply be resolved by opening all doors. However, I want you to think from their perspective as the poem requires exactly the same sort of thing of us.
Rumens begins by speaking of one wall coming down and then another going up. In my mind this almost certainly refers to the Berlin Wall being torn down by David Hasselhoff in 1989, where effectively the Cold War and the divide between the West and the USSR begins to come to a close. What about the new one going up? I’d relate this to the changing focus of foreign policy at the beginning of the 21st century where Muslim became the new face of fear thanks to the attack on the Trade Towers in New York and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At around this time Hollywood switches from all villains being emotionless Russian automotrons to merciless Muslims happy to blow themselves and everything else up. You can read a nice article about this here, if you’re interested (apparently it’s big business that are always the villain now).
More generally she is referring to xenophobia and racism. In the poem the society puts up barriers against outsiders, which shift over time, but judged individuals’ worth on the basis of their background. It presents a common notion of xenophobia that a society or a country needs barriers to protect its blood and heritage, when in reality there isn’t a country in the world that hasn’t got a history of invasion and migration; in reality we are all mongrels with bits of this and bits of that in us, so the notion of division on these grounds is man-made and artificial.
Rumens places us in an immigration office, where the officer asks the traveller to declare his allegiances based on his race and nationality. The officer is blunt and rude as he doesn’t even greet his customer and merely seeks to judge him by putting them into the appropriate box so they can be judged. He presents the traveller with the choice: are you with us or against us? As if the traveller has no independence from his blood or nationality, and is in fact not an individual.
We should understand the broader message of the poem, but doesn’t this just sound like a normal trip to an immigration office? The traveller shouldn’t feel bad, immigration officers are just an impolite bunch – certainly from my experience!
However, this is not meant to represent an isolate incident, but rather societal attitudes. This is extended beyond entry into a country, but also relates to the way certain people are viewed by society. Rumens links to the rise of surveillance culture and associates it with the travellers as if they need to be watched because of the boxes they have ticked.
Language and techniques
First of: the title. ‘The Border Builder’ immediately makes us think about what borders are. If they need to be built then they are man made and countries are separated really on made up grounds.
I’ve mentioned above what I think the first two lines are about, in terms of a specific event in history. However, we might also want to consider the implications of the fact that Rumens says ‘No sooner… than’. This suggests that building borders or creating divides between us and others is natural reaction that society programs into us. We are not talking about actual physical borders, but rather borders in terms of attitudes and setting different groups of people apart or into different categories than us.
However, where do these borders come from? Rumens focus us on a ‘he’, but she does not mean one individual. Really she is referring to societal institutions and governments. In the UK, where Rumens is from, there were often stories about the negative impact of Indian immigrants or, more lately, Polish immigrants causing problems within society or taking the jobs of true Brits. However, overwhelming evidence suggests that all these immigrants play a really important role in the country and are a huge benefit. Nevertheless scaremongering from political groups and media outlets helps create a sense of a huge problem when none exists.
In South Park we see the American attitude of ‘they took our jobs’ caricatured beautifully. I imagine it’s the same the world over. However, as individuals we don’t really have the sense of perspective to take the view that one group of people is ruining the country, so we have to recognise that our views are heavily influenced by the media we consume.
Anyway, back to the poem. Rumens talks about how this border is constructed using ‘my bricks… of my genuine blood!’ So, this border is not build of bricks and mortar, but rather is a judgement against people with different blood. The barrier this traveller faces is their skin and everything contained within. This demonstrates the racist or xenophobic attitudes where someone can be judged on the criteria of their race or background.
On the fifth line we are posed a rhetorical question. This is a tricky question to deal with. Actually, if we didn’t have borders there would be a lot of problems, certainly initially. However, Rumens wants us to think that without borders there would be no divisions and no hatred between different races and cultures. If we don’t treat anyone as the enemy or as being an outsider, then we treat everyone as equals and do not judge anyone by birth factors that no one has any control over.
Instead of this utopia of Rumens imagination we are faced with a choice. ‘So which one are you?’ and ‘which side are you on’ force us to choose and to define ourselves on the basis of these unalterable differences. This attitude of either or occurs again on fifteen where we are asked to choose our colour. ‘No colour… no good’ shows this societal judgement that refuses to accept that we are all the same and wants us to choose sides and to create divisions between different people.
Notice how the officer treats the traveller. His actions are sharp and arbitrary. He ‘stuck out his hand’ and ‘slammed’ the passport down. These reflect the arbitrary nature of xenophobia and racism. Judgements are made upon a whole race or nationality, when in reality each individual is just that – an individual.
I think Rumens gives the traveller a choice as their passport is ‘slammed’ onto the wire. Are you with us or against us? Choose which side of the wire you want to be on now. This could refer to something like faith being used as a tool of judgement. The West still portrays Muslims to be a violent faith and seems to have constant suspicion on these grounds and it is almost like the immigration officer in this poem is saying that if you want to be British you have to give up that as that is the faith of the enemy. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but there is a certainly a choice that the traveller is being asked to be made.
If we were in any doubt about the nature of these borders and barriers between different races, nationalities, faiths and cultures, Rumens communicates the aggression and hatred these borders bring. We know the bricks are made of blood, but the final line shows violence of these division as the officer says ‘Which side is your bloody hand on’. Simply interpreted this could be seen as a mini expletive indicating the anger and simmering tension that separates the immigration officer and this traveller. However, the bloody hand could also represent the violence that the divisions cause and this could be asking the traveller to take sides in a war of cultures or believes – to get his hands bloody.
The final thing I’ve forgotten to mention here is the interesting lines (10-12) in the middle of the poem. Our surly officer for once sets about a task ‘merrily’. He is rolling out wire that will give ‘his walls ears and eyes’. This is a clear reference to CCTV and the surveillance culture of the West. This is probably the clearest sign that the poem is focused on something broader than the individual and we can see that the government and media who have created these artificial borders, hatred and fear.
He approaches this task with positivity because this is the reason these division are nurtured: in order to provide excuses for tighter government surveillance and monitoring of its population. I’m not going to get into whether I agree with this or not, but Rumens certainly seems to be suggesting that the government manipulates its people to hold certain views in order to further its own powers. If you are interested in understanding more of this argument then get out and read 1984 by George Orwell – brilliant book and interesting to think about how much of it reflects the current state of Western societies.
First, mention how the poem’s structured, as a single stanza composed in free verse, mirrors the utopia of a world without border and division as advocated by Rumens.
I’d also mention the repetition that is projected from the immigration officer. We are asked repeatedly to define ourselves whether that be ‘which one’, ‘which side’, or in terms of our birth or nationality. Specifically, ‘which side’ is repeated four times in the poem. This reflects how society and its controlling influences try to condition us to view the world as a case of good vs. evil rather than from the starting point of shared humanity amongst everyone on Earth.
We also see a bit of the frustration this attitude and division cause, for those who are its victims at any particular time, in the repeated moan ‘O’ as the traveller is judged on the basis of blood and then race.
Although there is clearly a sense of brooding anger in this poem, it is not expressed with a boiling undercurrent of violence (as in The White House), but rather with a feeling of being subdued and reluctantly accepting of the inevitability of the maintenance of these attitudes.