The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Defacing the Monument by Susan Briante

This selection, chosen by Guest Curator Elizabeth Vignali, is from Defacing the Monument by Susan Briante, released by Noemi Press in 2020. 


In a safe in our bedroom closet in our bank owned house, 72 miles from the US-Mexico border, on traditional lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation, my husband, Farid, keeps his naturalization certificate, a newspaper clipping of his naturalization ceremony, and a letter from then President Bill Clinton.

“I want to congratulate you on reaching the impressive milestone of becoming a citizen of our great nation…” President Clinton writes. “You now share in a great experiment: a nation dedicated to the ideal that all of us are created equal, a nation with profound respect for individual rights.”

Not a “milestone,” Farid calls his naturalization a “defensive measure” at a moment of heightened anti-immigration rhetoric from politicians such as Newt Gingrich, former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Pete Wilson, former governor of California where Farid and his family were living at the time.

The nation was founded on stolen lands. An ideal is an abstract contract. In an experiment, there is no certainty.

On my laptop, I open a scan of my great-grandmother’s enemy alien identification card, issued in 1942, when she had been living in the United States for 37 years. The US government required the card be carried by Italian-born immigrants (classified as “enemy aliens”) during World War II as part of a series of measures that included travel restrictions, the seizure of personal property, and internment. My great-grandmother signs her name on the card with an “X” beneath which are written the words “her mark,” then “witnessed by” and the name and address of her son. Because of her illiteracy and the war with fascist Italy, she could be deported under the current president’s immigration policy.

But she was not.

And although I live on occupied lands, nobody asks for my papers.

From my great-grandmother’s illiteracy to my place in the middle class might seem a story of American opportunity, where generations appear like steppingstones toward some goal of a mortgage and a 401k. But the documents do not make evident the structures of white supremacy and limited economic expansion that made “progress” possible, what rights my ancestors’ luck, effort, and assimilation have afforded me.

Metaphors make circles of our histories: a Venn diagram of contrast and resemblance.

I do not want my family’s story to be a frame, bent to resemble a human cage.

Susan Briante is the author most recently of Defacing the Monument, a series of essays on immigration, archives, aesthetics and the state, winner of the Poetry Foundation’s Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism in 2021. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly calls the collection “a superb examination of the ethical issues facing artists who tell others’ stories” and a “dazzlingly inventive and searching text.” Briante is also the author of three books of poetry:  Pioneers in the Study of Motion, Utopia Minus, and The Market Wonders.

Elizabeth Vignali is the author of the poetry collection House of the Silverfish (Unsolicited Press 2021) and three chapbooks, the most recent of which is Endangered [Animal] (Floating Bridge Press 2019). Her work has appeared in Willow Springs, Poetry Northwest, Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, Tinderbox, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. She lives in the Pacific Northwest on the land of the Noxwsʼáʔaq and Xwlemi peoples, where she works as an optician, produces the Bellingham Kitchen Session reading series, and serves as poetry editor of Sweet Tree Review.

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