NEW YORK — At a time when families have been separated at the Mexican border and children placed in cages, the country's poet laureate is invoking an old and welcoming spirit for those seeking to live in the United States.
Tracy K. Smith's "Harbor," commissioned for this week's opening of the Statue of Liberty Museum, is a ghazal-form poem (a series of autonomous couplets) partly modeled on Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" and its immortal beckoning to "your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." In "Harbor," Smith invites the arriving "Stranger" to "Be my guest. Drink tea, taste fruit and bread."
Stranger, you're the words to a hymn I've only ever hummed.
Come. Let's erase the distance between skin and skin.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly denounced asylum seekers, and one of his top advisers on immigration, Stephen Miller, has even questioned whether the Statue of Liberty deserves to be considered a symbol for immigration. Smith, whose honours include a Pulitzer Prize, declined to directly criticize Trump or his administration. But she said she was deeply shaken by images from the border and said the country was in a "dark chapter." She added that her time spent in rural communities over the past couple of years has encouraged her.
"I've been to places where the backgrounds and perspectives of people are very different from mine, but I found again and again that it's possible to engage and have enlightened and affirming conversations," she told The Associated Press during a recent telephone interview. "We have the tools to solve these problems."
Smith, 47, was appointed to a one-year term in 2017 by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, and was reappointed as poet laureate last year. At the time of her first appointment, she told the AP that she didn't see her job as a "platform" for her own politics, and called the laureate's position "beautifully remote from any kind of political obligation." She praised poetry as a chance "to let go many of your assumptions, move away from your own certainties and to listen."
Asked this week if she wanted Trump to read "Harbor" and what he might think of it, Smith said she hoped that "any reader who looks at the poem" would "acknowledge the pain it expresses, and to feel alongside it the spirit of hope that runs throughout."