When the Salvadoran-born poet Javier Zamora was nine years old, he
travelled alone to the United States, crossing the border on foot to
reunite with his family. Now twenty-seven, he has lived in the U.S. ever
since. Over time, the details of his journey have blurred in his memory.
A few years ago, after getting an undergraduate degree from Berkeley and
beginning an M.F.A. at New York University, Zamora decided to retrace
his steps.

“I just started, day by day, trying to remember that moment when I left
my house with my grandpa, got on a bus in San Salvador, and took the
eight-hour trip to the Guatemala-Mexico border,” he told me recently. He
wrote down what he could remember—in prose, at first, the better to keep
his recollections factual and specific. This was a recovery mission. It
took twenty-five thousand words to reconstruct the first two hundred and
fifty miles. The beginning of his trip, which Zamora made with his
grandfather, returned to him more easily. But after two weeks in
Guatemala his grandfather had turned back, and Zamora had proceeded on
his own. “The memories got more sparse at that point,” he said. “I have
not been able to write that part in prose. From Guatemala on, everything
turned into poems.”

These poems came to him in short, uncontrollable bursts; they were
memories he didn’t realize he had. On a twenty-hour boat ride from the
Guatemalan coast to a remote beach in Oaxaca, there had been a “huge
smell of gasoline,” he told me, which coincided with the blaring
realization that he didn’t know how to swim. At one point, he said, another
passenger jumped overboard to shit in the water, then panicked when he
thought he might drown. He grabbed the side of the boat and nearly
capsized it. Nearly two decades later, Zamora finally remembered how the
boat had teetered and rocked.

Zamora is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow, at Stanford. In 2011, he
published a chapbook called “Nueve Años Inmigrantes,” and his first
full-length volume, “Unaccompanied,” has just come out. The poems are written in a searching, confessional style, in which their author
recalls his life as though he is in conversation with the people who
helped to shape it. He addresses his grandparents, in El Salvador, who
survived the country’s civil war at great personal cost; for Zamora, the
violence of the war years was refracted through memories of his
grandfather’s subsequent rages (“We’re all running / from the sun on his
machete. / The moon on his gun”). Another cycle of poems adopts the
perspective of Zamora’s parents in order to describe their coming of
age—and their tortured decision to leave for the United States without
him. “To tell you I was leaving / I waited and waited / rethinking first
sentences in my sleep, / I didn’t sleep,” Zamora writes in one poem,
signed “Dad, age 19.” Those “sentences” of forewarning went unsaid at
the time, and so Zamora imagines them for himself. In another poem,
titled “Second Attempt at Crossing,” he recalls a long-gone stranger who
saved his life on the final leg of his journey. “I jumped on your
shoulders / and we ran from the white trucks, then their guns,” he
writes. “I’ve never thanked you.”

“Unaccompanied” is structured around a refrain from one of Zamora’s
favorite poets, the late Salvadoran writer and revolutionary Roque
Dalton. Midway through the book, he quotes Dalton in Spanish; at the
end, he translates the same passage into English: “My country, you don’t
exist / You’re only a bad silhouette of mine / a word I believed from
the enemy.” In Zamora’s incantation, these lines are addressed not to
one country but two. “Stupid Salvador,” he writes, “you see our black
bags, our empty homes / our fear to say: the war has never stopped,
and still you lie / and say: I’m fine.” And then there is the United
States, the land of “La Migra,” “drybacks,” and “deportation letters.”
“I’ll never be a citizen,” Zamora declares in the collection’s opening
poem. “I can’t go back and return.” Without the proper papers, you
can’t leave the U.S. because you won’t be allowed back in. But the legal
bind underlines a deeper question: If you are both profoundly American
and inescapably Salvadoran, can you ever feel like you belong fully to
either country?

The fates of the U.S. and El Salvador have been entwined since at least
the Salvadoran Civil War, which began in 1980 and lasted until 1992.
Seventy-five thousand Salvadoran civilians were killed, most of them at
the hands of the military, which the American government lavishly supported. Over
the past several years, tens of thousands of Salvadoran refugees,
fleeing gang violence, have arrived in the U.S., and many American
politicians complain that the border is overrun. President Trump has
singled out, as one of his token foes, a Salvadoran street gang called MS-13, which actually began in Los Angeles.

Zamora started studying the Salvadoran Civil War in tenth grade, at an
élite high school in Marin County, California, where he had an athletic
scholarship as a soccer player. By then, he told me, “I had pretty much
assimilated into what a normal Latino student is. That is, not someone
who speaks much Spanish. If someone got to know me at that time, they
wouldn’t know that I’d emigrated from another country, or that I spoke a
different language. I went through this big denial—I almost renounced
that part of myself.”

Learning about Latin American history in school began to change his
outlook. “That was the beginning of me finding my language in Spanish
again,” he said. But the definitive catalyst was poetry. When he was
seventeen, he read a bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda’s “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair,” with the English and Spanish appearing
side by side. “A light bulb went off,” Zamora told me. “I worked my way
through the Latin American poets. But it was through their translators.
Who was translating Neruda? It was W. S. Merwin. I looked into him and
then into others.”

The pattern repeated: the Latin Americans led him to American
translators, who were often major poets, too. Eventually, three
contemporary American poets became his lodestars: Yusef Komunyakaa,
Charles Simic, and Sharon Olds. “From Komunyakaa and Simic, I learned
how I could talk about the war,” he said. “The thing with Sharon Olds
was how open she is, talking about her family and her body—really tough
things, like getting divorced. That gave me permission to ask questions
about my past and about my status.”

Zamora’s resourcefulness is one of his most distinctive qualities as a
poet. If something seems inaccessible to him, he simply finds a way to
get at it. “I wasn’t born when all this happened,” he writes in “For
Israel and María de los Ángeles.” In that poem, he pieces together
family lore, recovered testimony, and bits of historical research to
tell the story of his uncle Israel and Israel’s fiancée, María, who were
murdered during the war. “I’ve learned to lower my eyelids / So blood
looks like dirt,” he writes. In college, Zamora wrote his thesis on the
civil war, and his erudition is scattered in fragments throughout
“Unaccompanied.” One poem has eyewitness testimony lifted from a
documentary, which Zamora treats as found poetry. The historical
material invariably brings him back to the personal. In a poem signed
“Mom, age 13,” Zamora imagines how his mother processed some of what was
happening around her when she was a child. Growing up in the States, he
couldn’t get her to talk about her Salvadoran past. Now he reimagines it
in order to stage the conversation he never had.

When Zamora and I first spoke, last summer, more than a year before the
book came out, he was still dealing with what he called “a fifteen-year
playback.” His memory was working on a delay. But it was something that
he had learned to live with, even to harness. Some of his most specific
and consequential memories were of things he’d forgotten. Zamora didn’t
recognize his father when they finally reunited, but he remembers how
the two of them cried. “Unaccompanied” concludes with a poem titled
“June 10, 1999.” It’s the day that Zamora arrived in the U.S.