Tuesday, June 26, 2007

*Robert Pinsky's An Explanation of America

from Part Three: Its Everlasting Possibility

Strangers: the Foreign who, coupling with their cousins
Or with their livestock, or even with wild beasts,
Spawn children with tails, or claws and spotted fur,
Ugly--and though their daughters are beautiful
Seen dancing from the front, behind their backs
Or underneath their garments are the tails
Of reptiles, or teeth of bears.

So one might feel--
Thinking about the people who cross the mountains
And oceans of the earth with separate legends,
To die inside the squalor of sod huts,
Shanties or tenements; and leave behind
Their legends, or the legend of themselves,
Broken and mended by the generations:
Their alien, orphaned, and disconsolate spooks,
Earth-trolls or Kallikaks or Snopes or golems,
Descended of Hessians, runaway slaves and Indians,
Legends confused and loose on the roads at night...
The Alien or Creature of the movies.

As people die, their monsters grow more tame;
So that the people who survived Saguntum,
Or in the towns that saw the Thirty Years' War,
Must have felt that the wash of blood and horror
Changed something, inside. Perhaps they came to see
The state or empire as a kind of Whale
Or Serpent, in whose body they must live--
Not that mere suffering could make us wiser,
Or nobler, but only older, and more ourselves...

On television, I used to see, each week,
Americans descending in machines
With wasted bravery and blood; to spread
Pain and vast fires amid a foreign place,
Among the strangers to whom we were new--
Americans: a spook or golem, there.
I think it made our country older, forever.
I don't mean better or not better, but merely
As though a person should come to a certain place
And have his hair turn gray, that very night.

An Explanation of America by Robert Pinsky: Princeton University Press, 1979.

*This book-length poem was written by Pinsky to his young daughter. He says in the first stanza, "...I want to tell you something about our country, / Or my idea of it: explaining it: / If not to you, to my idea of you." I had never read it, but I came upon a copy while prowling around Faulkner House Books in New Orleans last April, and I've been slightly obsessed with it ever since. If you've been reading my blog very long, you'll understand why.


Anonymous said...

We are indeed living in the belly of a whale or serpent and I, for one, have grown old at the sheer futility of trying to change it.

Juvy Santos said...

"On television, I used to see, each week,
Americans descending in machines
With wasted bravery and blood; to spread
Pain and vast fires amid a foreign place"


no way I can say anything better than that...

BitterGrace said...

The whole poem is well worth reading, Juvy, and the book is still in print. I fear I am slightly pushing the rules on fair use by posting this much of it, but I don't think Princeton or Pinsky should mind the free ad ;-)

I know what you mean, Bozo--it seems we've been waiting for the revolution for an awfully long time now. It's interesting, though, to think that Pinsky wrote that as a rather young man. I wonder if he would use the image of age in the same way now.

Mary said...

What a brave piece of work.

As much as I'm looking forward to the end of the Bush era, I despair going through another campaign season. What's that line from that Who song? "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss".