I recently watched a gimmicky nature documentary called Night on Earth. After dark in the Sonoran Desert, Mexican long-tongued bats behave like the birds and the bees. They carry pollen from one night-blooming cactus to the next, fertilizing them across great distances. The documentary unfurled these wonders in time-lapse: cactus flowers, pink and purple and white, arc open to expose stiff styles and powder-lush stamens. The bright, open petals reflect the moonlight, their blue sheen a beacon. Bats flap like hummingbirds as they tongue nectar from the flowers’ sweet centers, dusting their faces bright with pollen. A desert miracle, ordinary as sunset.
I thought of the speaking bats in the Salvadoran poet Javier Zamora’s “Saguaros,” a poem about a childhood US/Mexico border crossing. “[L]a sangre del saguaro nos seduce,” the bats hiss in the lavender twilight sky. In the speaker’s eyes, coiled wire—razor and concertina and barbed—cuts across the entire landscape, outlining innumerable areas of detention, forced immobility, and active occupation. Their own migrations interrupted by miles of border wall, the bats confined to this side say, “speak English only.”
Alfredo Aguilar’s On This Side of the Desert names a physical and social geography that is multiple: the desert is, first, living, populous, blooming, and only second barbed, barren, terrorizing. In and beyond the collection’s title poem, speech is the passage between these two sides of the desert, as when a stranger named Santos is brought back to life by the speaker calling his name. This miracle reminds us of what is ordinary: that the borderlands are a place of living and not just of crossing—that those who are killed in the crossing are not as much victims of nature as they are victims of militarized state power. Santos does not die of the elements; he is murdered by the federal government’s official Prevention Through Deterrence policy, which turns the desert into a weapon.
What makes the book such a singular collection is precisely its focus on ordinary inhabitation rather than spectacular violence. As Aguilar puts it, “i am common as sky.” The desert may sometimes be a danger, but it is also a cradle. His speaker grows from boy to poet in a series of short portraits that are domestic, intimate, simply worded, indebted. The child of Mexican immigrants born and raised in the California borderlands, he writes, “i was born / only because my parents / had crossed unseen…lead north / underneath a dim sky.” And so Aguilar listens for his parents’ shelved stories (they “believe they’re unimportant”) and creates in his poems a place to carry them. His father breaks horses, his mother runs with the coyotes, his aunt has been forced to leave her children on the other side. The landscape is brilliant and multifaceted: la migra polices “the boundary of a bejeweled empire” and the speaker walks through a field of goldenrod.
The book reveals the US/Mexico border to be both arbitrary and bleeding, its growing wall slicing through Native nations and other entire lifeworlds. In the poem “The Boy Considers Being Born Elsewhere,” Aguilar reflects on historical shifts of the border in times of US expansion and conquest, an era of atrocious settler actions against Indigenous people—including murder, expulsion, and slavery—as well as Native resistance. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, pushed the border hundreds of miles south, to the Rio Grande in Texas, and gave the US ownership of California and massive parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. Many borderlands residents woke up one morning to find themselves in a different country without having moved.
While many Mexicans were granted automatic US citizenship and retained their property claims, this did not protect them from a gruesome campaign of racial terror that swept the Midwest from the mid-nineteenth into the twentieth century. Thousands of people of Mexican descent were lynched by Anglo settlers, conquerors who “believe / everything they touch does not have a history.” Aguilar’s collection positions citizenship not merely as an accident of birth, but as a technology of exclusion aided and abetted by extrajudicial and state terror. The border has shifted before, and who is to say it will not shift again?
In her introduction, Natalie Diaz points us to the brightening horizon of “Origin Myth”:
Look, Diaz writes, at just how much a sun, and a son, can do. But it is the nighttime sky that captivates me most in This Side of the Desert, staged as the place where the desert can return to itself in and as its first geography, populous and blooming.
The night sky comes to life in “Borrando La Frontera,” an ekphrastic poem that describes Mexican artist Ana Teresa Fernández in the act of painting a section of the border wall to give it the illusion of transparency. Covered in paint, the wall disappears, so that looking north from Mexico, you see not metal slats and barbed wire, but endless sky and unbroken horizon. At sundown, the sky turns from “blue to pink rose / to violet” and the painted wall transforms with it, blooming with stars and clouds that the poet names home and familia. Just as Fernández paints a new northern horizon, restoring an earlier line of sight and freedom of passage, Alfredo Aguilar writes a new sky in which the light of all the suns and stars irradiates a desert once and always whole.
The poems’ hesitations are as powerful as their miraculous transformations. Admissions of doubt stud the collection in straightforward sentences like “i am still trying to get this right” and “i’m trying to say something about fear / & am failing.” The conqueror’s touch that empties history reappears in the Department of Homeland Security’s policies across presidential administrations. Our government keeps children locked in cages by transforming metal bars into plexiglass. It replaces migrating birds and bats with flying drones (what do they hiss? “I see you, I see you”). It draws lines in the sand and considers them set in stone, erecting a border wall of steel slats on the same spot where 200-year-old saguaros are razed and bulldozed aside, bleeding white milk. It does not call migrants and refugees by their names: it calls them “surge” or “flood” and imagines their arrival as a “crisis,” avoiding naming the actual and centuries-long catastrophes of conquest, capitalism, and climate change.
In Aguilar’s desert, what a person or an experience is called matters. It might make the difference between life and death. In his poem “To the Boy Who Wanders Toward the Border,” Rigoberto González gives us a kind of counter-poem to “On this Side of the Desert,” imagining a name-calling with no efficacy whatsoever:
But the poet’s calls do nothing and the boy keeps walking. We need this kind of poem, which offers us language that makes no difference, language that cannot stop pending and ongoing violence—even if, by its end, this poem too will turn to the miracle of figurative language.
Aguilar’s poet-speaker worries, too, that poems distance rather than reshape the world: “i rewrite / the same sentence until it rings. i hold / language better than people.” The self-indictment stings: “i’ve been selfish / enough to climb into a song & not come back.” But at their core, Aguilar’s poems believe that holding people and their geographies in words offers them a sustaining and even transformational tenderness. Language may be as “common as sky,” but it is also as mighty. The speaker calls the names he knows out into the desert and marigolds bloom, the dead rise, and our faces turn to the uninterrupted sky.