ROCKLAND, Maine — As the prospect of a controversial wall looms on the U.S.-Mexican border, as immigrants and refugees are caught in an ever-expanding limbo, and as ICE stakes out courtrooms, it is unsurprising that American writers and artists have begun incorporating the concepts of “borders” and “boundaries” into their work. For their collaborative project Boundaries, on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, photographer Jacob Bond Hessler and poet Richard Blanco address the subject from a range of angles, using handsome large-scale color prints and poignant words.
The show consists of nine photograph-poem pairings. For the most part, Blanco’s poems were prompted by Hessler’s photographs, but they are not ekphrastic. There are no direct descriptive references to the images, although here and there the connection is made tangible. Rather, the poems run parallel to the photographs, often adding a narrative to what is a wide-open image.
A fine-art photographer based in Camden, Maine, Hessler explains in a video on the CMCA website that he favors “emptiness” and “vastness” in his imagery; the sky, for example, takes up most of “Hallandale Beach, Florida.” Only a thin strip of ocean and small wedge of beach along the bottom interrupt this skyscape — and without the photograph’s subtitle, “Where many Cuban refugees make landfall in the U.S.,” you’d never know the scenic view could be the site of turbulent arrivals.
The image has personal resonance for Blanco: the Bethel, Maine-based poet is the son of Cuban immigrants who came to Miami via Spain soon after he was born. “What We Didn’t Know about Cuba,” the poem he wrote to accompany Hessler’s image, recounts a cab ride from Havana to the north shore city of Mantanzas with a friend to give a poetry reading. On the way back to the capitol, the driver, a “macho cubano,” breaks down in tears after a phone call alerts him that his wife is headed, on a raft, to Florida. “Why you don’t write/a damn poem about this? Why?” he yells at his passengers.
The section of coastal fencing in Hessler’s photograph “Border Wall, Between San Diego County and Tijuana” can be seen through, like vertical louvers. It divides a patch of sand and enters the ocean to the right, creating the sense that it might continue across the water. You can make out a 7-Eleven sign in the distance, evidence that America doesn’t stop at this boundary. One imagines that the wall builders envision the United States as one big gated community.
Blanco’s accompanying poem, “Dreaming a Wall,” offers the paranoid ruminations of a man caught up in a desire to isolate himself from the rest of the world, to block off his backyard from his neighbors, “thieves who’d steal his juicier fruit, kill/for his wetter rain and brighter sun.” In the end he dreams of building the ultimate wall, a truly Trumpian fantasy:
…he smiles as he finishes
the last course high enough to imagine them
more miserable and lonely than him alone
inside his wall, sitting on his greener lawn,
breathing his fresher air, under his bluer sky.
As the poet chosen for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration — the first gay, Latino, and immigrant, and the youngest writer to take that role — Blanco channeled Whitman; his poem “One Today” sought to embrace and celebrate the entire nation. Since that life-changing event on January 21, 2013, the poet has continued to serve as a kind of unofficial poet laureate, coming forth with verse often meant to help people heal. Blanco offered comfort to the citizens of Boston, and those affected by the 2013 Boston bombing, with “Boston Strong,” written to benefit One Fund Boston. He lent his voice to marriage equality in the poem “Until We Could,” commissioned by Freedom to Marry. And he read “Matters of the Sea” at a ceremony reopening the American embassy in Havana.
Blanco continues his quest for universal empathy in Boundaries with “Declaration of Interdependence,” a prose poem composed around phrases from the Declaration of Independence. For the phrase, “In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress…,” the poet conjures images of a farmer and his son collapsed on a couch and a black teenager “who drove too fast or too slow, talked too much or too little, moved too/quickly, but not quick enough.” Hessler’s accompanying photograph shows a partially unfurled American flag on a thin silver pole erected in the middle of a desolate, foggy field. This symbol of patriotism is at once vulnerable and gallant.
A major exception to Hessler’s expansive compositions is “Temperate Rainforest, Northern California,” a mesmerizing image of an impenetrable tangle of mossy tree limbs, twisting up from a bed of ferns. The photographer Eliot Porter would have loved it for its verdant greens.
The accompanying poem, “Election Year,” recounts a gardener reluctantly facing his flower gardens as spring rolls around again. He wonders at the beauty of the blooms, but despairs at a vicious vine that proceeds to lay waste to the plantings, beheading peonies and strangling the blue asters. Where Hessler’s photograph reinforces one’s wonder at the power of nature, Blanco’s narrative assumes a more questioning stance:
…you lose sleep tonight, uncertain if the garden
is meant to inevitably survive or die, or if
it matters — one way or the other — with or
Perhaps the most timely photograph in the show is Hessler’s drone’s-eye view of a canyoned stretch of the Rio Grande as it winds through New Mexico. Here is that almost-mythical boundary, a thin line of silver water meandering through rough terrain, which, in itself, should deter inter-country travel.
In his poem “Complaint of the Rio Grande,” Blanco lets the river speak its grievances. The next-to-last stanza reads:
You named me big river, drew me blue,
thick to divide, to say: spic and Yankee,
to say: wetback and gringo. You split me
in two — half of me us, the rest them, but
I wasn’t meant to drown children, hear
mothers’ cries, never meant to be your
geography: a line, a border, or murderer.
During an interview with Irwin Gratz on Maine Public Radio in mid-March, Hessler and Blanco spoke about their collaboration. “What this project is trying to do,” Hessler stated, “is look at certain boundaries that we as humans have elevated to divide us from one another — boundaries used as tools of power.” For Blanco, the collaboration asked, “How can we question all boundaries, and not just replace one for another or say all boundaries are completely wrong?” The work in this provocative exhibition testifies to the power of their inquiries.
Richard Blanco + Jacob Hessler: Boundaries continues at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (21 Winter St., Rockland, Maine) through May 27.
Boundaries travels to the Ogunquit Museum of American Art (543 Shore Rd., Ogunquit, Maine), July 14-October 31, 2018. The photographs and poems in Boundaries are from a limited edition folio of the same title produced and designed by Hessler’s Two Ponds Press.