Boat People

by Mayra Santos-Febres, translated by Vanessa Pérez-Rosario

reviewed by Zack Anderson

Midway through Boat People, the Puerto Rican poet and novelist Mayra Santos-Febres’s book-length poem, the speaker confronts an unnamed addressee with a jarring question: “how is the city of your death      mulata?” Originally published in 2005 and now available in a bilingual edition with Vanessa Pérez-Rosario’s translation into English, Boat People is a wrenching monument to those “without papers / identities borrowed / floating under forged names,” residing in the purgatorial “city of the dead / swollen in salt.”

The first image we encounter in Boat People is that of “mangled bodies.” Santos-Febres’s imagery strikes a compelling balance between the horrors of bodily decay and the religious tradition of venerating body parts as saintly relics. Poem 18, for instance, begins by asking: “oh your finger    mulato / where did you leave it / entangled in which propeller      in whose maw / who preserves it as a keepsake in a small crystal vase.” Yet the spell of the crystal reliquary is soon broken by base physicality: “maybe      mulato / it was food for someone dying of fear on a / raft.” The poem concludes by revealing a finger’s meaning in its fingerprint, a sign that represents its owner’s immigration status:

you had almost drowned when the coastguard lifted you
and placed you in a pen
your finger’s missing passport betrays you
who takes your print now          mulato

In her translator’s note, Pérez-Rosario identifies the poems in Boat People as “twenty-first-century elegies.” The elegiac effect, she writes, is produced through apostrophe, a “way to animate the dead.” However, Boat People’s apostrophe does not summon these dead into a living presence—it underscores their absence and forecloses any sense of agency. Often, the address slips into an imperative mood:

fall oh my morenita
               fall to the ocean’s deep where hatchets are buried
fall          in search of your dream
seek your hungry mollusk by touch
with seven hands      morenita mía

In lines like these, the speaker’s commands demonstrate the migrants’ total loss of bodily autonomy. This loss is highlighted by Santos-Febres’s use of “Black Caribbean terms of endearment (morenita/morenito and mulata/mulato).” These terms mark the speaker’s ambivalent relationship to the migrants in the poem, balancing the language of care with the refusal to grant even the fixed sign of a name. It eventually becomes clear that the book’s speaker is the “insatiable sea” itself, and the intimacy felt earlier turns menacing in its all-devouring force. As Pérez-Rosario points out, this “personified sea is the only witness to migrants’ journeys, and their stories are often told through the powerful voice of the waters that absorb them.”

Boat People presents the sea as a conflicted site, neither purely liberating nor completely exploitative. On the one hand, it functions as a fugitive space for the dead to inhabit, “the illegal city in the ocean’s deep.” At the same time, this space is haunted by its status as a medium for the brutal economy of the Middle Passage and the proximate cause of the migrants’ deaths: “consuls dance here in the ocean’s deep / all drowned Caribbean / emissaries / of middle passage nations.” The sea is presented as translational—a zone for exchange and transformation—but it also deconstructs human bodies and national identities into depersonalized floating parts.

These cycles of fragmentation and recombination create a decidedly intertextual atmosphere. It is hard not to hear echoes of both versions of The Tempest (Shakespeare’s and Aimé Césaire’s) in this peripheral space. Certain lines evoke Ariel’s song:

hair tangled in propellers
and floating around
like a bell
like watery naseberries bursting inside.
like this               lipless
a gummy smile where coral grows

And the final lines of the book might have been uttered by Prospero: “this is your home            morenito / come             let me embrace you / at last you are with me / at last I can stop bewitching you.”

Like the ocean, Santos-Febres’s language often operates on multiple levels at once. It seems as though the words are saturated by seawater, resulting in interesting deformations and neologisms like the “steel oilcopter / ethereal metallic echo of co-opted oil paintings” (“eleóptero de acero / eco etéreo y férreo de óleos coaptados”). Pérez-Rosario’s translation captures these effects, to show how molecular variations have amplified effects on the macro level:

to change names
cells and identity
IDs to an identical cell
with tied hands

Rich language like this benefits from the presence of Santos-Febres’s Spanish text on the facing page, which allows even an inexpert reader to appreciate the playfulness of “cambiar de nombre / de células de identidad / cédulas de igualita celda” alongside Pérez-Rosario’s similarly musical translation.

Boat People joins a lineage of poignant works exploring the drift between borders and the constructedness of citizenship, ranging from the documentary (Heimrad Bäcker’s Seascape) to the epic (Caroline Bergvall’s Drift) to the elegiac (Asiya Wadud’s Syncope). Like these other works, Boat People is so impactful because its capaciousness and ambiguity only sharpens the reader’s sense of devastation. Perhaps the most disconcerting part of Boat People is how much the “illegal city” of the dead resembles the terrestrial cities that the migrants never reach:

you arrive in the city where you are lost
changed             thinner
more glassy eyed
you become more accustomed to death

Lines that, again, call to mind Ariel’s song: “Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”

Published on September 7, 2021