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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment


This is the field where the battle did not happen,

Where the unknown soldier did not die.

This is the field where grass joined hands,

Where no monument stands,

And the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,

Unfolding their wings across the open.

No people killed—or were killed—on this ground

Hallowed by neglect an air so tame

That people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

—William Stafford, “At the Un-National Monument along the

Canadian Border”

The need to think beyond the lines of the nation-state, or “the tyranny of the national,”1 has become a commonplace in the analysis of contemporary migrations, diasporas, migrant flows, and transits. Arjun Appadurai has coined the term translocality to address the resulting emergent spaces in motion and in conflict with geopolitical boundaries. In his analysis, the translocal is constructed a posteriori, as a result of contemporary mobility and the crossing of state lines. This look beyond the traditional isomorphism of common language, origin, blood, and culture, however, may erase the need for looking before the nation-state, before the elements of cultural self-imagining and self-narrativizing came into being. The movement forward in Appadurai’s argument, the “beyondness” he argues for, misses the corresponding movement backward in the imagining of the nation-state. Some translocalities, especially those in the border areas he mentions, are not post- but pre-nation-state. This time dimension or a pri- oriness determines both the contours and nature of the place where “the commitments and attachments that characterize local subjectivities . . . are more pressing, more continuous, and some times more distracting than the nation-state” (Appadurai 1996, 42) and the checkpoints that suture its perimeter. The resulting discontinuous continuity has been expressed by a variety of Native American writers, such as Thomas King and Louise Erdrich, who invariably portray their characters harassed by immigration officials or compelled to come under national definitions of citizenship.2 In these instances the line may close and harbor an indeterminate number of inner lines that hold crosser and goods in its inner folds, as if to assert the national features of each side.

This alleged distinctiveness of place, so deeply embedded in national alliances, is at the heart of Stafford’s poem on the U.S.-Canadian border. The poet has written about a place, as the repeated structure “This is . . . where” suggests. The anaphora conjures up the idea of place at the same time that the poem undoes the physicality of the actual location through carefully crafted negatives. The poem could actually refer to a real monument, such as the Peace Arch Park at the British Columbia-Washington border between Blaine and White Rock, with its twin slogans, “Brethren Dwelling Together in Unity” facing north and “Children of a Common Mother” facing south. Inside the arch, there is a gate, fastened open, with the caption “May These Gates Never Be Closed” (Ricou 2005, 7). Yet the poem is not place specific. “This,” and the connotation of proximity to the speaker, is as spatially precise as it gets. Furthermore, the poem moves away from the verticality of fences and man-made monuments and concentrates instead on the lack of national attachments of the sky and the grass. There are no border-crossers in the scene, other than the joined hands of blades of grass and birds unfolding their wings. Stafford does not even inscribe the opposition of sound versus silence and suppresses the singing of birds from the scene, offering instead a moment of total silence.

A similar landscape, apparently detached from national or binational monuments and affiliations, opens Frozen River. The Saint Lawrence River and its uninterrupted horizontality of snow and ice is the politicized horizontal line between the U.S. and Canada. As the movie opens, the camera moves away from the closeness of the slush to the distant horizon. With a quick transition of birds cawing, the camera travels to a standard, nondescript border fence. It is a semitransparent, metallic pattern that imperceptibly blurs to reveal the image behind it, the border bridge in Massena, New York. River, fence, and bridge create the triangulation of the border in the movie, at the same time that the three elements refashion the unpredictable rhythm of a line that opens and closes, communicates and separates, melts and freezes. The alternation of barbed wire and bridge, convergence and divergence, captured so subtly and ephemerally by the camera, structures the comings and goings across a boundary that splits between international and tribal crossing, between Natives and non-Natives, Mohawk territory and New York State. As a “spatial historicity” (Sanchez 1998, 107), space and time become compressed in its layering. The frozen river splits into a thinning crust of ice and the rushing of its waters. Beyond this doubleness, the river is not only concerned with space, the liquid crack, or political fissure between the two countries. It is also a temporal boundary that graphically represents and actualizes the flow of history. Simultaneous to this spatial and temporal quality of the natural boundary, the river is the site of interconnections. Its frozen waters become the matrix of a complex web of relations of domination and subordination, also of solidarity and cooperation between two mothers, Ray Eddy, an impoverished white woman, and her symmetrical double across the racial line, Lila Littlewolf. Both women converge and diverge on the frozen river, a horizontality that, as the movie evolves, becomes more than mere surface. The river harbors personal stories, like the body of Lila’s husband, who remains tangled in its weeds. It also bears the inscription of international histories, with the drawing of the geopolitical border between the U.S. and Canada and the dismantling of such division through contemporary illegal crossings. Like Apelles’s line, the river bifurcates into different dimensions.

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