Please Let Me Through: A Poet’s Airport Meditation
Celina Su remembers arriving at New York’s Kennedy Airport as a preteen immigrant from Brazil. Since then, she’s traveled to many corners of the world, but she’s always had “contradictory feelings” about airports. They’re places of “possibility, adventure, and also just momentous change,” says Su, a professor at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. But they’re also places where “we have to prove ourselves,” handing over IDs and submitting to patdowns.
Prompted by President Trump’s travel ban, Su channeled her reflections into a poem titled “JFK Airport.” That poem recently appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. “The anxiety level in United States airports is palpable,” the magazine noted. “In Celina Su’s provocatively spare poem, that fearful uncertainty lingers in the white spaces her readers must hopscotch through.” The poem was chosen for publication in the magazine by former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove.
The poem’s opening lines read: “I am delayed I am canceled I have a license I have a passport.” The narrator’s agitation mounts as the piece continues: “I have a purpose … please let me through.”
“JFK Airport” originally appeared in a book of Su’s poems called Landia. The title, Su says, refers to both “literal and figurative borderlands,” from the Thai-Burmese border, where she’s done fieldwork, to transportation systems and hubs like airports.
“I wanted to meditate on these sorts of places in lots of different ways, on how historical, social and political forces affect us, but also what our individual stories might look like,” she said.
Su teaches urban studies and political science, with a focus on participatory democracy. Poetry provides an alternative outlet for some aspects of her academic research. “There’s no way the details, the contradictions, the stories that haunt me from people that I met in my fieldwork would ever fit into typical academic journal articles,” she said.