It is a blessing or a curse for teachers of literature to have lines of poetry or prose in their heads that echo according to any given situation in life. Often these snatches of writers’ words occur to me when I am driving; for example, in Ngaio Marsh’s mystery novel “Artists in Crime” her detective hero says, “I feel a disposition of speed come upon me!” Roderick Alleyn is in fact testing the time and mileage to implicate a suspect in a murder case.
Edith Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), a New Zealand writer and actor, ranks with the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and others. Her middle name, pronounced Nye-o, is a Maori word for a flowering tree and an insect in her native land.
In my recall of Alleyn’s words, they justify my speed on a clear road on a beautiful sunny day with the car sunroof open and the wind urging my trusty steed onward. At other times Emily Dickinson is my companion as her words inspire my speed: “I like to see it lap the Miles / And lick the Valleys up- / And stop to feed itself at Tanks / And then — prodigious step ...” Of course, Dickinson is comparing a locomotive to a horse rather than to an automobile not yet invented in her day. I am certain law enforcement officers might feel their own disposition to cite such excess of speed, as I have learned much to my dismay on more than one occasion.
Naturally, as I prepared to listen to President Trump’s justification for a wall at our southern border, Robert Frost’s lines from “Mending Wall” came to mind: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it / And spills the upper boulders in the sun, / And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.” You may recall this poem: The speaker has come to repair the stone wall that separates his property from his neighbor’s land. The two men agree to meet to “set the wall between us as we go.”
At one place in the repair, the speaker points out that a wall is not needed, but his neighbor counters with “Good fences make good neighbors.” Being made mischievous by spring, the speaker argues: “Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it / Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. / Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense.”
Perhaps our president was never exposed to this poem that questions the purposes of walls, those constructed throughout history for fortification from enemies, protection, identification of boundaries — whatever. Many sources list the walls of the past and present: Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Belfast Peace Walls, the Berlin Wall, the West Bank Wall, the wall in Hungary to discourage Serbian immigrants, the wall between Israel and Egypt, and more. Frost recalls these ancient walls in his poem when he has the speaker regard his neighbor: “I see him there, / Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top / In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. / He moves in darkness as it seems to be, / Not of woods only and the shade of trees.”
I expected in the president’s speech to be enlightened about why we need a wall. He said we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands, but isn’t the crisis the separation of families, the use of a shutdown to force the building of this wall? Aren’t there other humanitarian crises that deserve this much attention — the gun violence from our own citizens, the climate changes and assaults on the environment that threaten our very well-being?
Determined to take notes on the speech, I prepared for some cogent argument and facts, but the eight- or nine-minute discourse held nothing convincing. Others have noted that such a wall belies everything America stands for. Emma Lazarus wrote these words to commemorate the opening of the Statue of Liberty in November 1883: “From her beacon-hand / Glows worldwide welcome; her mild eyes command ... ‘Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ ”
Our nation’s leader needs to think about why we people must be convinced that immigrants to this country harm more than they help: Drive past fields in Wayne County to see who is harvesting the food for our plates; enjoy some fajitas at our local restaurants served by people who immigrated here; admire the work ethic of people repairing our homes. Workers who earned 60 cents an hour in their native country want to improve their lives just as many of our forefathers and mothers did when they sought asylum here. Being born here does not award us the right to exclude others from the pursuit of a better life. The president cited five or six horrible criminal acts illegal aliens committed, but to imply that all illegals are criminals creates the fallacy of hasty generalization.
Being mostly an apolitical person, I have no answers, but 5.7 billion dollars or any cost to build a wall of any material is money that can be better spent. What is America? Is its symbol the Statue of Liberty with her “worldwide welcome” or is it a wall that excludes or challenges climbers to ascend at the cost of their lives? History tells us that sometimes a wall works, but often walls fail at great cost.
If “good fences make good neighbors,” as Frost suggests, let’s work on the neighbor part first. Let’s see what can be achieved with our neighbors to repair infrastructures, secure environments, and make those countries “places to live in, not escape from.”
Liz Meador is an adjunct instructor at Wayne Community College. Questions or suggestions for column topics may be sent to email@example.com.