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essay /jessica harkins

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

On the nature of boundaries

Dear Sir, Do the families ever write to you? Or friends of those who have disappeared? Maybe trying to explain why the person had come here (tried to come here) in the first place? A list of their good qualities? How much they are needed or missed? I write a lot of letters like that—to a bureaucracy that doesn’t exist—on behalf of the many missing and scattered members of our family. Naturally to no avail. But since you are actually there someone could write to you: a human and temporal embodiment of what is – usually – a collusion of historical, geographical, and/or socio-political forces – cataclysmic forces underlying events like the plague, the Great Depression, World War I. Those forces that collide on a highway or in a heart and take one of us from the other. (For real, my great grandfather was beheaded on a highway during the Great Depression. He’d been standing in the back of a truck when it crossed some sort of power line stretching across the road. Do you see what I mean? Who on earth do you write to about shit like that?) But here you are, the force embodied, pen in hand.

Dear Sir, What is outside only exists so far as it is also inside of me. Like a convex mirror. How do I keep people out? I can’t even keep out weather. If there is a way to seal myself off from others, let me know. I could place orders and collect only the pieces of the world I wanted to have in there. Barthes calls this ‘the theme of a beloved enclosure.’ So warm. But, as he points out, what about the infinite? Doesn’t it ever get into you? Through the tiniest crack in your thinking? Like the reverberation a bird leaves on a window, a bird which, fortunately, has not died from the blow. At just that moment of the impact, let’s say ‘the bird’ is a nagging thought. You’ve sensed the presence of something else, which means that there is an outside of you where that something else must be. You know, how you can even just ‘brush up’ against the infinite? When the bruise it leaves is as darkly lined as an iris?

Dear Sir, Does it bother you now that you are supposed to be reuniting the children separated from their families? What do you think about that? I am not a reporter, so please don’t get defensive. I’d really like to know your thoughts. Could you imagine telling me? A woman you’ve never met, never imagined, what your actual, deep down thoughts are. It would be like praying, wouldn’t it, to talk to her?

Dear Sir,

I am writing to you because I live in a constant state of mild terror that my family is being torn apart like a ship in a maelstrom. I dream about a ship with my family aboard being taken apart by a terrible storm at sea, and somewhere in my consciousness I am afraid that the kraken will come and devour my family once they are in the water. Somehow, I am in the middle of the boat, the dark hull of the storm; and the boat is splintering, and I cannot hold the boat, my family, together. I feel it when I am awake as a deep pain in my neck and shoulders. I won’t bore you with the story of how, once, during a session of craniosacral therapy I began to cry against my will as the therapist found and unlocked tension in the muscles along my skull.

Dear Sir, Do you have reunions – family get-togethers - where your cousins with bad teeth are cursing and smoking and all their children have different mothers or fathers? What about cousins who were adopted? Back then, the family didn’t get a lot of information, so we had cousins (we found out later) born addicted to heroin. One had already suffered brain damage as an infant because his mother stabbed him in the head with an icepick. What I don’t get is how we made it out. Why were we the ones who got into college and ended up with health insurance? I mean, years ago I was a runaway blowing some overweight guy in a sleeping bag to feel better about scamming a place in his tent. I mean, what the fuck? We’ll all do pretty much anything to get back inside, even if we want to go back out again. My cousin with the head injury is doing okay – thanks for asking.

Dear Sir, I think I have survivor’s guilt. My therapist calls it “P.T.S.D.” even though I have never been in a war or anything! She says studies from some recent decades show that ‘children who experience separation, uncertainty, and/or volatility in their primary care environment can’ (get this) ‘manifest the same symptoms as soldiers who go through combat.’ Sounds far-fetched to me (like I could be playing the martyr) but I do get a heart-pounding, tunnel-visioned fight or flight response when I hear someone speaking angrily to their children—so, she has me there. How about you? Any triggers? They’re hard to pin down, aren’t they? It’s like you know, but you don’t know. Anyway, I am taking a lot of liberties here. It’d be different if we spoke in person.

Dear Sir, Do you think there’s any good reason why some people ‘make it’ and some people don’t? I’m not really talking about the border between the US and Mexico here, but you can take it that way if you want.

Dear Sir,

This is my last letter. I want to ask how you think about borders. Are they boundaries? Are they finite, by which I mean measurable? What is it like to have them? (Please describe.) Mine – if I have them – are the infinite kind: for instance, if you were to walk through tall grass in late summer, your fingers combing the strands. That is what my boundaries feel like. More like a field between river and forest than anything else. But I wanted to talk to you about other kinds of boundaries. What I mean is that I keep seeing people flying in the dark. It makes sense if you think about it: everyone here lives on a planet that is, basically, flying through the darkness of outer space. Though what I mean by ‘darkness’ is essentially the unknown, how we cannot see what will happen next. And, at the same time, people are dying. All around the world, people are crossing boundaries into the afterlife. People blink in and out, being born and dying, all the time. Blinking like stars or like two-way windows in and out of this reality. That’s a kind of border. But the moment of their passing makes another kind of border here: a before and an after. To be concrete: say, when my brother died it was 8:52 a.m. (I don’t really know what time it happened because of course I wasn’t there, but let’s say he dies at 8:52 a.m.) At 8:53 a.m. I am still alive. So is everyone else. So are the mosquitoes. The grass moves in the wind. Blink, blink. Nothing happens, or more to the point, nothing stops. I keep going. But there’s a border now – maybe something like the lovechild of a river and a scar (it might be like that)—and you cannot cross it. It’s behind you, like an open window, but don’t turn around or try to reach your arm through it—because as in a horror movie the window is a part of you. And the children you hear playing outside are inside you, too.


Jessica Harkins' first book of poems, The Paled Guest, was published by Kelsay Books, and her poems, translations, and articles of literary criticism have appeared in journals such as Copper Nickel, Interim, Versodove, Exchanges Literary Journal, Matter, The Chaucer Review, Cimarron Review, SALT Magazine, The Adirondack Review, The Comstock Review, Redactions, ARS Interpres, Agenda, and Stand (U.K.). Jessica is a native of rural Oregon, though she lived in Italy for several years before pursuing an MFA in poetry and a PhD in English from Washington University in St. Louis. Jessica currently teaches creative writing and medieval literature at a small liberal arts college in central Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and their two sons.

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