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. 


We stand at the front of the chapel, next to the small altar. Our guide at the Juan Bosco Migrant Shelter in Nogales, Sonora thought we (two men and three women from a university an hour to the north) were going to ask questions of the migrants seated in rows of folding chairs before us. But we stand before them silent. A door in the room’s back wall remains open to the sidewalk; a fan vacillates near the altar. After a few awkward seconds, we ask the men and the women if they want to share anything with us. Most have either been deported or arrested on their journey, will be allowed to stay in the shelter until they can find work or another place to go. In the front row, two young girls flip through a blank notebook passing it back and forth between them.

And the men and women begin to call out from their folding chairs.

“The US officials take our documents and don’t give them back,” a woman says.

“They stick their hands in our mouth,” she continues.

“They treat us like criminals,” a man says.

And the men and women say “inhuman.” They say “respect.”

“Think of all the money they spend to pursue and prosecute us,” one man says, “when all we want to do is work.”

No one needs to prod them into speaking. They testify as we stand next to the altar, nodding and translating, holding our notebooks without remembering to write anything down.

And when they stop speaking, we thank them.

Before we leave, one of us pulls a pen out from her bag and hands it to the little girls, holding their own blank notebook in the first row of chapel.

But the story can’t end here.

The pen is not a metaphor for giving voice. The pen is not a metaphor for giving tools. A tool is the flag hung over the water barrel or the coordinates of the barrel written into the code and transmitted to the migrant’s phone or the poem that helps the migrant locate the north star.

Let us think, instead, about the blank notebook passed back and forth as promise, as the space to hear the vibrations of the relational web, to witness the wingflash, to resist the impulse to commodify a history of survival, to remember our place in relation and our potential to recognize

what haunts, what calls, what pecks at our awareness, what sings out or screams through the text of our present.

Let us think about the gift of the pen as a pledge to mark our silence before the stories that are not ours.

The pen is less important than what happens when we walk out of that room with the memory of those children.

To leave the page blank. To lay down. To see in the charged colors. To look directly into the camera. To be connected by more than flows of currencies. To turn our eyes towards the tangle: the webs of capitalism, antiblackness, white supremacy, narrative webs that constitute the veil of a military-prison-industrial-educational-kleptocracy we mistake for our democracy, the veil of silence and myth of voice, the commodity of story. To learn to recognize webs of need and responsibility, veil of the individual, the veil of racism, sexism, imperialism denying our humanity, our web of connections and differences, veils of deception and greed. To find the documents excluded from the archive, the stories in our cards and from our ancestors (what gets passed down or forgotten in the project of healing, who stares out the window and drinks themselves to rag), to remember that our stories do not take up equal space in the “marketplace” or the myth of the nation, that everyone has the right to their opacities, the beautiful eclipses

that both farmer and astrologer read.

Poems, documentaries, performances, (Soma)tics, rituals and divinatory readings can be a map or a code of coordinates. They might shine like guide-stars. And while they might not lead anyone to water, they might help them understand where they are and how they might change what surrounds them.

Our poems, documentaries, performances, (Soma)tics, rituals and divinatory readings might make a space like an empty notebook passed between sisters or friends

upon which they might leave their marks across a page or leave nothing but the space for someone else to write their story

a blank page, where anything is possible.

The bullet holes on the water station sign and the legal threats hurled at the “Desert Survival Series” remind us when our poems counter state sanctioned violence they will be challenged, not made part of the installation at the point of entry.

We must not make the suffering of others a commodity.

We must not seek the approval of the state or its co-conspirators.

We do not need more poems at the port of entry any more than we need the concertina wire that now sparkles like tinsel through Nogales.

We need people to bring the wall down.


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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