Reflections in the Frost: Reading America’s Borderland

Photo by Bill Herndon,
North Franklin Mountains, El Paso, Texas, USA Looking northeast toward Anthony’s Nose, Photo by Bill Herndon

After a month in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I am still baffled by the lack of fenced yards. When living in the Republic of Texas and the California Republic, I would have erected a fence before fixing a leaky roof. But here in the cradle of US freedom, there are not the same privatist hangups.

It is as if the sentiment got lost in westward translation. “Commonwealth” is an English translation of the Latin, res publica, a public affair (cf. res privita, a private affair). Southern hospitality and California cool, I surmise, are regional amendments to compensate for the border fetish.

Americans have a complicated relationship with borders. Sacred is the image of Lady Liberty at New York Harbor. Poet Emma Lazarus called her the “New Colossus,” “Mother of Exiles,” whose “beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.” More familiar is her quiet cry, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore… the homeless, tempest-tost.” But just as sacrosanct in this country is the proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors,” a line from Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall.” It is frequently rehearsed to praise the value of closed-door policies on a personal and political level. 

The totality of Frost’s verse, however, is more layered than the isolated line would have us believe. The poem follows two neighbors on a hill who raised a dividing wall. The one, whose reflections to which we are most privy, questions the wall’s use, but the other insists that “Good fences make good neighbors.” After the winter, when the wall is need of mending, the reluctant one “let[s] [his] neighbor know beyond the hill,” and the two meet to repair the wall, each staying to their respective sides. We hear the earnest of the one “who will not go behind his father’s saying,” but Frost would have our sympathies lie with the neighbor willing to ask, “Why do they make good neighbors?” Hence, critics emphasize the poem’s central irony, the perpetually porous dividing wall created and maintained by those on either side. This is highlighted in the brief clip from The West Wing.

If Americans are going to look to Frost for guidance on their Southern border, we might discuss the nature of the fence mapped. What might it reflect? Is it our dependence on a “shadow economy” of laborers wiling to work in sub-humane conditions, freeing us to protest the manufacturing and technology jobs that our corporations outsource to the East? Is it the feeling of protection we get–despite the fact that we are not quite sure what strategies effectively secure our borders? Or maybe it is the opportunity to dramatize the paternalism that goes hand in hand with being a super-power, “as nearly 100,000 unaccompanied minors are expected to travel to the U.S. this year.

To the chagrin of my liberal friends, I do not doubt that there are good reasons for borders. And to the dismay of my conservative ones, I’m just not sure what those reasons are. To quote Frost, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” yet I like “having thought of it so well.”

I do think some matters are clear. Regardless of what we make of the fence in the poem, the two neighbors have homes that shelter them into spring. Whomever we choose to reside with, we can be certain there’s a roof over our heads. The analogy does not hold true at our southern border. The children come because they may not make it through winter. We can blame their parents for not being as caring as we are. We can curse their gods for raining down such awful conditions, and we can praise ours for blessing us. But who are we to pass the buck on caring for children? Border or not, I do not want to live in a place where such an attitude can be commonplace.

The Obama administration has used its authority to place the young immigrants in various cities throughout the union. Some local authorities, like Chicago’s Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, will use federal funds to house the children. Others, including four GOP members of Wisconsin’s state legislature have rebuffed the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s plan. Fearing that temporary placement will devolve into a permanent arrangement, the representatives “believe it is in the best interest of the minors to be relocated near our nation’s southern border, allowing for prompt reunification of families.” Surely what is not in the best interest of these minors are las hierlas, the US Border Patrol’s concrete “freezers” being used to hold the children awaiting judicial review.

Interpret Frost in whatever way you’d like, but remember that the children are reading us while they wait. Maybe in this one instance, we can use the political aisle to spur a different kind of fight, a battle to see who will be first to feed and warm and teach the children through this winter.

Richard-Newton Picture

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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