Alexandra Socarides of The Los Angeles Review of Books’s has a lovely and informative piece on “New Colossus,” the Petrarchan Emma Lazarus sonnet that famously adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. We learn about the poet and the poem’s formal and political import; Socarides frames “New Colossus” as a bold statement for immigrant reform and tolerance, Lazarus herself as an engaging figure worthy of study.
My own history with the iconic poem is less exalted. I remember distinctly the first time I heard it: I was three years old, in bed with one of the migraines that had arrived with the news of my mother’s pregnancy with a new brother. My father read me the poem, his voice choked with emotion, explaining that it had heralded my great-grandparents’ arrival in New York. Then he left me to sleep, drugged with pain and the red liquid children’s Tylenol that always stained the sheets.
When I woke up a few hours later, cautiously better, the words were still in my head. “Yearning to breathe free …” I thought.
I wandered into the other room, where my parents were sitting on the bed with my new baby brother, hideous and red-haired. My father was making a videotape with his Betamax camera, not that the baby was doing anything interesting. I casually stripped off my cotton underpants, lay down on the bed, and began kicking my legs in the air.
“Look at me!” I said. “Look at me!”
“Sadie, put on your underpants,” said my mother.
“But, Mama!” I cried. “I’m yearning to breathe free!”
The baby rolled or something.
“MY VAGINA IS YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE!” I shouted, in case they’d missed it.
“Today, Charlie is four months old,” my dad was narrating. “We are on Seventy-Sixth Street. Sadie, would you like to say something to the camera?”
“Camera!” I screamed. “MY VAGINA IS YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE!” I waved my legs in the air vigorously.
“Enough with the vagina, Sades,” said my dad.
This is all on videotape. I recently saw it when I took a bunch of Beta tapes to be digitized. I apologize to Emma Lazarus.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”