Prospective Immigrants Please Note

The Open Door, 1930
John Armstrong (1893–1973)

Immigration. Immigrants. Emigrants. Refugees. Travelers across borders. Changing countries by choice or by necessity of survival.

Moving from one state of awareness to another. Learning. Growth. Transformation. Going deeper. Looking more closely. The threshold of consciousness.

To grow and change. Or not. We have that choice.

Here the poet speaks from the other side of the frontier, the border, the wall, the divide. There is a door. You had the choice to go through it to the other side. You took the choice. You have the choice.

You stepped through the door. Or you did not.

Prospective Immigrants Please Note


Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself makes no promises.
It is only a door.

             Adrienne Rich

It is possible to read this poem as a reflection of the experience of becoming a hyphenated America – the risk of being American with the dual identity of place of ancestral origin, religion, predilection, preference or orientation. You must let go of the person you were, the culture you had. Your new identity is of the new country where as an immigrant you must find your way and settle in to something new and strange.

It is also possible to read the poem as a metaphor for change, for the border crossing of learning, the stepping into new awareness and consciousness of new identities. You don’t have to be in current parlance “woke”. You can stay defensive and uninformed, maintaining your old thinking. But there’s a risk in that too.

The border crossings of the poem can be literal or metaphorical. Immigration is a border crossing of consciousness. It’s a state of mind that is part  the human condition of learning and change.

A nation of immigrants and a world of change : What kinds of hyphenated person are you?

In an interview with Bill Moyers Rich said:

It seems to me all of my life I’ve thought of poetry both as a source of joy and deep, deep pleasure. And as a way, sometimes profoundly disturbing and even painful, of moving deeper into the heart of things. And I was not thinking, really, when I wrote this poem, about literal immigrants. I was thinking about internal immigrants, those who are passing from one place to another, from one country to another, in themselves.

I think in this poem, what I am talking about is the choice that we can make, to move deeper into things, or simply to live worthily, maintain your attitudes, hold your position, even die bravely, but not to see what might have been seen. Not to grasp what might have been grasped. And that is a choice, for us all, whether in poetry or in life.

Maria De Los Angeles

Passage (2007) Cornelia Konrads

Laura Knight
Emigrants by Laura Knight 1922. The RMS ‘Olympic’ (White Star Line, Southampton to New York).

Featured image: Huang Jingyuan from her “I am Your Agency” 2013.

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