Susan Middleton

At the Mexican Border, Mid-March 2022

On the Tijuana side, two more
encampments have sprung up—
one of Ukrainians, the other of Russians.
Daily they join the long line

of asylum-seekers inching forward—
to show passports again, get rejected again.
Title 42 allows U.S. border guards
to choose on a whim who may enter

the land of the free, the home of the brave.
A handful from Ukraine are waved through,
but the guards turn all the Russians away.
Two women tell a reporter their stories.

Daryna fled the scorched-earth
bombings of Kharkiv, Irpin, and Kyiv.
Katya escaped likely imprisonment after
protesting the war in St. Petersburg.

Three days ago they met in this line.
Today they hold hands and embrace.
Katya makes tearful apologies for Putin,
while Daryna comforts her new friend.

One day Russia is free nation, says Katya.
Then I return home. Today is lies, danger.
Adds Daryna, smiling, We are sister
countries. We make small family here, now.

Next day, Daryna gets permission to cross.
Before leaving, she gives her cell number—
call me!—to Katya, who must remain, hopes
and belongings up against the razor wire.



Day 21

Video clip on YouTube, gone viral: An old Ukrainian woman 
     accosts a young Russian soldier in the street.
          Swearing, shaking her fist, she spits on him. How dare you
               invade our country? Confusion blooms on his face—
                    where are the flowers of gratitude
                          that Putin promised would greet us?

Drone footage of aerial bombardment: Russian mortars, targeting 
     high-rise apartments in Kyiv, expose shredded beams,
          crumbling walls, twisted rebar. A nightmare dollhouse 
               of private rooms laid open to the frigid winter sky.
                    Vacant but for furniture, cracked toilets, 
                          a spill of clothes and toys.

Slow panning video: Long lines of Ukrainian refugees
      trudge dozens, even hundreds, of miles to reach the border.
           Last week a million refugees, this week triple that.
                 Some carry a plastic bag of belongings. Others empty-handed. 
                       Four adults walk while holding the corners of a blanket,
                            a child curled in the center. Wounded? ill? crippled?
                                   The voiceover doesn’t say.

Close-up: outside Mariupol’s bombed-out maternity hospital, 
     a young woman lies crumpled in a shopping cart,
          belly swollen under a pink sweater.
                Her only companions a crater of broken concrete blocks, 
                      silent chorus of toppled buildings all around.

Another scene: At a wrought-iron fence on the border, a couple lingers, 
     she on the Polish side, he on the Ukrainian. Fingers entwined,
           they strain to kiss through the bars. Reluctantly,
                 she pulls away, heading with others to a refugee center.
                       He turns to retrace his steps.
                             Like all men 18 to 60, he must stay and fight, 
                                   to throw off the assaulting behemoth.

Surreptitious iPhone video: In Moscow’s Red Square
     a young woman apologizes for the misery her government
           is showering down on Ukraine. I am so ashamed, she weeps.
                So afraid for our families, friends, in both countries.
                      Nearby a group of demonstrators holds up signs— 
                            how long before they, too, are taken away?
                                  In three weeks of war, fifteen thousand protestors 
                                        have been arrested in cities across Russia.
                                              Among them a man whose sign is blank.

Flashforward: Pundits predict—soon more than a quarter 
of Ukraine’s 43 million citizens will have fled
the country or been displaced 
inside its borders.

Tomorrow is day 22.


Susan Middleton writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She is a co-founder of Slate Roof Press (Northfield, MA), which in 2007 published her chapbook Seed Case of the Heart. Her poems have been published in numerous literary magazines. In 2018 she won first prize in the Beals Prize for Poetry.