Coral Justifies Bleaching Itself
. . . as the algae provide the coral with 90% of its energy,
after expelling the algae the coral begins to starve.
–Wikipedia on coral bleaching
We have to expel these foreign (colored)
elements. Although we benefit from (can’t do without)
their labor, they are a threat (essential)
to our way of life.
So out with them. Our body politic, purified (whitened)
stands ever stronger (bleached skeleton
Tiel Aisha Ansari
Review by Debra Kaufman
I admire how, in the straightforward definition of coral bleaching, the poet discovers/uncovers the language of racism and nativism. By giving coral the voice of a colonizer, which depends and feeds on the worker algae and then rejects it, the poet shines a light on the abuse of power over the very thing that it depends on to survive. The parenthetical words deftly point to how those in power use euphemism to diminish, silence, and stake their claim over the oppressed.
Review by Rénee K. Nicholson
When a poem manages to be about two things at once, it’s an impressive feat. Tiel Aisha Ansari’s “Coral Justifies Bleaching Itself” on the surface-level read, is about the effects of climate change on coral reefs. However, within the first line after the epigraph, we know it is about more than the bleaching of coral, but the bleaching of culture. “We have to expel these foreign (colored) / elements” the poem begins. The idea of foreignness is immediately linked to color, the way white America often views minorities and immigrants. The poem immediately makes one take notice of how, through the “whitening” of America, it becomes a bleached, starving dead skeleton. It implies that the coral—and by extended metaphor the country—would want to die in order to keep its purified whiteness, despite the obvious benefits of allowing the foreign elements in, with their life-saving color.
The use of parenthesis complicates the poem in exciting ways. Read alone, colored, can’t do without, essential in the first stanza give us a clear sense of what diversity brings us. The second stanza’s reads like a warning: whitened, bleached skeleton, starving, dead. This is what happens as a result of bleaching. It’s a message much needed in the crowded national dialogue about race and immigration. The sense of destroying our environment, both our ecological one and our national one, hewed together, remind us how destructive we can be. What’s not said, but I hope implied, is that it can be otherwise.