Jeff Dingler

Letter to Jonah on the Border

       For five days the river kept me down,
                  and you were my held breath.

             In the land of the blind—the old witness told me—seeing is subversive. 

        I was writing about people fleeing the fall.
            But on the Matamoros banks,
they murmur this isn’t the spot where their bodies were found,
this lily cross by this river that moves like mud
           a black name on white wooden arms: 
                      julio 2017 – junio 2019.
           No cross for the siren-swallowed father,
 no cross no name
no birth-death dates, they murmur
            for him who swam with her little body on his back.

                                           Witnessing is a quantum concept.
                       Once seen, the observed and observer are no longer the same.

   Everyone answers that no one knows 
     who first stabbed the cross into the earth’s chest. 
El padre, some joke, merciful God for his lamb-skinned son
            but what a view it must’ve been crucified atop Calvary,
akin to these banks of mud cake and smog light
  for even crosses have to consider real estate. 

No estámos en la frontera, estámos en el limbo
y todos los dias lo mismo, lo mismo, lo mismo.

            And what did I see, my unborn son?
    I saw where they wash their clothes in the mud and green. 
I saw where they sidewalk their schools, their abecedario
y matemáticas into chalk 
     and riverbank dust.
I saw the sidewalk children gnaw their hunger with their smiles,
carving out sand castles from the precipice above the fall. 
I saw where they swim with tadpoles and metamorphs in the shallows 
and drown in the green suck of the unseen undercurrent. 
I saw where they went to watch the tent courts on the US side,
sitting in the ripples’ silent judgment,
and I thought of you, my blue-eyed one,
that birth is the first blind faith.

You know what Matamoros means, right?
Named after the Spanish patron saint 
of slaughtering Saracens, 
60,000 of them according to legend.
God, great father of all, willed it. 
Praise God.

              Writing to death 
         is not the only way out of Limbo.
            The border water too is a terminus.
      Two minutes, the camp people murmur, 
to underneath the water’s warped image
of immigration courts 
of vinyl stretched 
like skin over metal ribs
that never would’ve considered the cross-less 
unnamed father and his 
toddler daughter slung under his wet, stretched shirt
     like a cold stone 
           freshly pulled from the river.

Please don’t speak Spanish to me.
I grew up across the border in Dallas,
have lived in Texas since I was eight months old,
and just last week they deported me. 

          I wanted to father this book
about the detention-deportation machinery
   of America,
about the teeth that grind us up
    about your great grandfather who was a chewed-up immigrant
Jew, Holocaust survivor, gambler, 
      Kafkaesque cockroach, 
brutally honest liar,
who earnestly believed 
that the milkmen in America
walked on gold sidewalks.
      The book was supposed to change like water.
Instead it changed me                         as you are changing me.

The wife of the most powerful man in the world 
           visited the camp on Sunday, walked across the Gateway International Bridge
to meet with asylum seekers and said, 
    “I witnessed both the cruelty of our policy and the grace of acts of kindness.”
                                                    And then her husband, father of four, deported 100,000 more.

                 When I write now I imagine you there
on the rusted merry-go-round.
You don’t yet know your name,
Hebrew for dove or pigeon or whale-swallowed,
           eight months there,
little pink salamander inside my love’s body
         swimming in the inner glow.
    We have discussed a water birth,
that your lungs are already filled with fluid,
     that air
will remain unknown until 
you come out in the blood crash, 
until we lift you like a smooth stone
out of the water so you can discover
           this alchemy we call 

           And this is the part where we feel our privilege.      
Where we feel really bad.

     Crossing back over
that bridge ribbed with chain-link,
how to tell you what I saw, Jonah?
    How to describe that line of international flesh?
How to tell you about the woman pushing the charred stroller,
            the little girl holding her grandmother’s leathery hand,
the charity of American brands tight on their bodies
    all suspended over water,
          potable                            swimmable                              drownable.
How to tell you, Dove, that we walked past all of them,
       that it costs three quarters to cross over to Mexico, 
            but only one to reenter Uncle Sam Land
            (that the cheese is always sweetest in the trap),
        that your great grandfather never wrote a word
about what happened to him and his brother,
   barely spoke of his sister
who touched the tip of an electrified wire
   somewhere in the Eastern European snow,
       that the survivors did not survive.
   I want to write the world
    is abloom, Love, because it is.
I want to write that on our first date
your mother brought a double rainbow
   laced through the dark pub sky.
She later told me she thought I brought the rainbows.
                      Now neither of us knows.
         I want to tell you that for five days I crossed over 
    borders                           bridges                         channels
                   and I can still hear the murmurs
       of the souls on the bridge who spoke of what 
they will do when they get to Colorado or Alabama 
or San Antonio or Philadelphia or New York,
 how they’ll be living the dream then,
       asleep a sleep 
                          a deep       sleep…

                                                                                                 A Honduran friend
                                 who got his family across to California said: Cuando bañamos 
en el río bravo fueron los años más difíciles
esperando asilo politico
           esperando una vida nueva.

     When I started this,
out of all my imaginations
I never saw you, Love.
When I wrote about these fathers and mothers of exiles
I never imagined your mother
there reading in the living room,
waiting for me to finish.
 I’ve gathered now
  all the breath inside the pauses
all the white space behind the words,
but what to say, Jonah,
other than it will be far too much,
other than I am nothing but a writer,
           nothing but water,
that we ripple with what’s thrown inside.
What to say 
other than I am the one waiting now,
    waiting for you to be washed into this world
and take your first breath,
waiting to hear 
  the magic
    of your voice.

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Photo credit: Allan Mestel

Jeff Dingler is an Atlanta-based writer. A graduate of Skidmore College with an MFA in creative writing from Hollins University, Dingler has written for New York Magazine, Washington Post, Salmagundi, Newsweek, and The Hollins Critic, and Two Hawks Quarterly. He’s currently at work on his first novel, Mother of Exiles, named runner-up in The Writers College’s 2021 Global Novel Writing Competition.