American Identity, continued

June 21, 2022

  I hope you’re reading and listening to the poems at the Library of Congress site  I wrote about last time, where fifty contemporary poets each read and discuss poems they think express something distinctly American.  If you’ve already done some exploring, you know that the pages include a transcription of the poem and also the poet’s comments about it.  I’m finding the discussions illuminating and often surprising.  I’m posting four of the poems that have drawn me so far, hoping that you’ll continue to the site to hear the discussion.  While you’re there, choose a favorite of your own–you can just post the author and title on the blog, and people can read the poem at the site.  You can see that I’m hoping to lure you all in to having a look and a listen.  Plan to read and talk about them at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) zoom discussion.  As usual, I’ll send the link later this week.  And let me know if someone would like to be added to the mailing list.



Randall Jarrell


The child saw the bombers skate like stones across the fields
As he trudged down the ways the summer strewed
With its reluctant foliage; how many giants
Rose and peered down and vanished, by the road
The ants had littered with their crumbs and dead.

“That man is white and red like my clown doll,”
He says to his mother, who has gone away.
“I didn’t cry, I didn’t cry.”
In the sky the planes are angry, like the wind.
The people are punishing the people—why?

He answers easily, his foolish eyes
Brightening at that long simile, the world;
The angels sway above his story like balloons.
A child makes everything (except his death) a child’s.
Come to the stone and tell me why I died.


–read and discussed by Laura Kasischke




HOWL   part III

Allen Ginsberg

Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
   where you’re madder than I am
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you must feel very strange
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you imitate the shade of my mother
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you’ve murdered your twelve secretaries
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you laugh at this invisible humor
I’m with you in Rockland
   where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter
I’m with you in Rockland
   where your condition has become serious and is reported on the radio
I’m with you in Rockland
   where the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you drink the tea of the breasts of the spinsters of Utica
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you pun on the bodies of your nurses the harpies of the Bronx
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in
   an armed madhouse
I’m with you in Rockland
   where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist
national Golgotha
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your living human Jesus from the
superhuman tomb
I’m with you in Rockland
   where there are twentyfive thousand mad comrades all together singing the final stanzas of the
I’m with you in Rockland
   where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night
   and won’t let us sleep
I’m with you in Rockland
   where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve
   come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself    imaginary walls collapse    O skinny legions
   run outside    O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here    O victory forget your underwear
   we’re free
I’m with you in Rockland
   in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door
   of my cottage in the Western night
–read and discussed by Mary Jo Bang


James Tate

What made anyone think I was a Communist I don’t know.  I never went
to any of the Communist meetings.  I didn’t know any other Communists.
I didn’t believe in any of their tenets.  It’s true, I hunted elk in the
winter.  I never actually shot any, but I followed them.  And I laced my
cranberry juice with vodka.  But these things didn’t make me a Communist.
I stood on the bridge and watched the boats go out to sea.  I dreamed
of going with them one day.  I danced alone in my apartment.  I hated my
job with the government.  I went to parties where I didn’t know anyone.
I went to the zoo and talked to the animals.  I dreamed I had an affair
with a zebra and its stripes rubbed off on me.  I met a woman I
liked and called her on the phone.  She said she liked phone sex and I
didn’t know what she meant.  I lay on the couch and counted my blessings.
There were none, or so few they slipped through my fingers.  I got up and
looked out the window.  A cloud of sparrows flew by.  I made myself a can
of soup.  I thought of my relatives, all gone except for one.  I called
her on the phone.  She didn’t remember me.  I told her I was Edna’s son.
She said, “I remember Edna.  I never liked her.  She cursed too much.”
My mother never cursed, but I wasn’t about to argue.  I went to the movies.
I saw Hopalong Cassidy.  I wished he didn’t wave so much.  But I liked
the popcorn.  I walked about the city, feeding the pigeons.  I bought a
soda on the street.  I sat down in a garden.  A woman came along and sat
down beside me.  She said, “Nice day, isn’t it?”  I said, “Yes, very,
I like it.”  “What do you do for a living?” she said.  “I’m an accountant
in the government,” I said.  “That must be nice,” she said.  “But most
people I know think I’m a Communist,” I said.  “That’s a joke, right?”
she said.  “To me it is,” I said.  “To me, you look more like an
Argonaut,” she said.  “What’s an Argonaut?” I said.  “It’s somebody
who swims in the deep waters of the ocean in search of treasure,” she
said.  “I found a penny in my bathtub once when I was a kid,” I said.
“Then you’re an Argonaut,” she said.

–read and discussed by Matthew Zapruder



Lisa Suhair Majaj

If they ask you what you are,
say Arab. If they flinch, don’t react,
just remember your great-aunt’s eyes.

If they ask you where you come from,
say Toledo. Detroit. Mission Viejo.
Fall Springs. Topeka. If they seem confused,

help them locate these places on a map,
then inquire casually, Where are you from?
Have you been here long? Do you like this country?

If they ask you what you eat,
don’t dissemble. If garlic is your secret friend,
admit it. Likewise, crab cakes.

If they say you’re not American,
don’t pull out your personal,
wallet-sized flag. Instead, recall

the Bill of Rights. Mention the Constitution.
Wear democracy like a favorite garment:
comfortable, intimate.

If they wave newspapers in your face and shout,
stay calm. Remember everything they never learned.
Offer to take them to the library.

If they ask you if you’re white, say it depends.
Say no. Say maybe. If appropriate, inquire,
Have you always been white, or is it recent?

If you take to the streets in protest,
link hands with whomever is beside you.
Keep your eyes on the colonizer’s maps,

geography’s twisted strands, the many colors
of struggle. No matter how far you’ve come, remember:
the starting line is always closer than you think.

If they ask how long you plan to stay, say forever.
Console them if they seem upset. Say, don’t worry,
you’ll get used to it. Say, we live here. How about you?


–read and discussed by Naomi Shihab Nye







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  • Reply Martha Zweig June 24, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    Of the 4 here, I prefer Jarrell & Tate. (Intensely dislike Ginsberg, Whitman & most of that lineage: bloviators, sez I.) The L of Congress site was down sometimes, but, of the poems I did read there, I liked Foerster’s American Coma, & Tate’s Wild Beasts. I hate it that we call this nation “America,” which is a continent. I used to love 4th of July fireworks, until, duh, one day I got it about the erotics of rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air, orgasms of violent conquest.

    • Reply Sharon June 24, 2022 at 3:44 pm

      I’m opposed to intensely disliking almost any poets, even the bloviators, because they have some beautiful work. I hope you’ll bring the two poems you mention to Fridays at 4.

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