Stepping into the MultiCultural Center (MCC) lounge last Thursday night, I noticed a stark contrast in warmth from the outside world. The actual temperature indoors was a nice change from the cold, misty weather, but the increase in emotional warmth throughout the space was far more significant. Soft purple lighting filled the crowded room as friends called out to each other and new acquaintances shook hands with smiling faces. Shirley Geok-Lin Lim completed the homey atmosphere as she burst into the room with wide eyes and pizzas for everyone. Thus began a heartwarming night of community, social awareness and pure appreciation for the poetic arts.
The event was hosted by the UCSB MCC and featured poetry readings from renowned writers and UCSB staff members Lim and Rick Benjamin. Benjamin, poet laureate for the state of Rhode Island, has taught at several other universities and has published three books of poetry, the most recent being Endless Distance. Lim has not only established her career as a professor and poet both in the United States and abroad, but she has also received awards like the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for her work.
Benjamin began the evening with a mixture of his new and old poems, focusing on the variety of voices and perspectives that make up America’s diverse society. His first poem illustrated the conflict surrounding immigration through an extended metaphor, using butterflies to represent the people that migrate to the United States. With an admiring tone, he described the beauty of the butterflies and poignantly tied his imagery to Mexico. He noted the butterfly’s habitat along the Rio Grande and ended his poem with the Spanish word for butterfly, mariposa.
The poem was inspired by the political climate of the election.
Benjamin explained, “I had a poem that had been simmering for a while. This was in the summertime, and Trump was talking about that wall way back when.” The poet made clear reference to Trump’s claim to build a wall on the Mexican border throughout the piece, stating with a stern tone that the butterflies “find ways of scaling any wall, no matter how tall.”
Despite his emphasis on political tension, Benjamin wanted to include poetry with a theme of “resilient love.” One poem served as a tribute to Nelson Mandela and his kindness toward his captors in prison. The opening lines —“For decades, his guards would tell of him asking after families” — illustrate Mandela’s determination to form genuine human connections with even those opposing him.
Benjamin expressed his awe at Mandela’s actions after the reading, describing him as “somebody who is so relentlessly loving that he turns you.”
Lim took the stage next to provide not only her view of American politics, but also a critical look at the events she observed when she was living in Hong Kong.
Lim explained, “You know, it’s not just the United States that’s had a lot of problems. China, as you know, has a lot of problems, too, so we’re not the only country.”
She read one poem inspired by China’s increase in female infanticide, using vague language to create a “controlled” tone despite her personal anger. The mood was ominous with constant use of the words “ashes” and “soot” to refer to the practice of suffocating an infant in soot.
In addition to her darker poems, however, Lim also returned to the theme of resilient love with poems about family.
She prefaced her poem, “Keeping Your Distance,” by saying, “And you guys, my students, remember this poem, and remember to call your mother,” earning a loud chuckle from the audience.
The piece expressed her love for her son and her struggle with living so far away from him. The poem felt personal and intimate, as Lim directly addressed her son in a motherly tone.
She described the distance between parents and children as “something Americans are so good at,” but she demonstrated that her love for her son can withstand any new custom by declaring, “I’m trying. I am trying.”
The poetry presented throughout the night told many different stories. Themes of injustice, entrapment and cultural dissonance were prevalent as the poems expressed the feelings of many people in America and abroad brought on by the current state of politics. The use of both new and old poems from both poets, however, suggested that even though human conflict is cyclical, love can be as well, whether it be for family, for strangers or even for poetry itself. It was that sense of love and community expressed through language that created a warm relief from even the coldest February days.