Friday, July 4, 2008


The gaze of liberty and independence
Uneasy in groups and making groups uneasy.
–Robert Pinsky, “An Explanation of America: A poem to my daughter.”

One could do worse on Independence Day than read Pinsky’s long poem, “A Explanation of America” (1979). The poem, of course, does not live up to its title (what could?), not even on the level of something that might actually clarify things for one’s child -- the ostensible occasion for the poem that gives it an ongoing conceit, but one which cloys at times into that sentimental fixing of the gaze upon one’s own progeny as wonders of being that so often underscores public statements of parental concern and interest. Pinsky is aware of this, so it’s in-keeping with the poem’s tone that he wear his parentalism, as it were, on his sleeve. The poem is most effective when it actually tries to explain Pinsky’s “take” on America for his daughter’s (and his reader’s) sake: as for instance in “Serpent Knowledge,” the very thoughtful segment of the poem which manages to thread thoughts about “strangers” and “others” (or as he says, thinking of myths and sci-fi, “monsters” and “aliens”) into a final statement about Vietnam and the difference it has made in what is often called “the national psyche,” a redefinition of -- to use Bruce Springsteen’s phrase -- “who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.”

I think I responded most to that section of the poem because the book I finished reading yesterday, Dean Baker’s The United States Since 1980 (2007), inspired a similar feeling about the U.S. in the Iraq War era. My dismay about Vietnam is tempered by the fact that I lived through it as a child; as bleak as that failure of U.S. hubris is, the Iraq War, as a “victory,” seems even more shameful, because it’s a victory that makes one seriously question not only the rationale of the U.S.’s foreign policy, but the ability of its leadership to do anything effectively, which is to say without incompetence and criminal fraud, two leading aspects of the U.S. as a superpower in the period Baker’s book covers. Our nation’s status as “last man standing” after the U.S.S.R. went belly up seems to give it carte blanche to find a way to destroy itself -- by simply not knowing what to do with its “power” or how to cooperate with rather than bully the rest of the world. Not that, unlike the U.S.S.R., the “unity” of the States themselves is at risk (though, really, the idea of an inner nation surrounded by a different coastal nation did seem to emerge in the coverage of Bush’s second election), but rather what is at risk is whatever ideal the U.S. is supposed to stand for to the world at large. Supposedly, that ideal is “freedom,” but freedom comes to seem to mean the freedom to buy whatever you want, to live as you please (and to do what’s necessary to support your “habit”), and to hell with the consequences. Early in his poem, Pinsky cites the idea, taken from Malcolm X, that “America is a prison,” so that “freedom” in such a context is completely determined by the context of one’s efforts, by the circumstances, by what has been called, since ancient times, fortune.

The plural-headed Empire, manifold
Beyond my outrage or my admiration,
Is like a prison which I leave to you
(And like a shelter) -- where the people vote,
And where the threats of riot and oppression
Inspire the inmates as they whittle, scribble,
Jockey for places in the choir, or smile
Passing out books on workdays.

The poem is in many ways a meditation on “where one fits in,” and since the demographic of what is “fit” to be recognized as America has changed drastically in the 25 years since Pinsky’s poem (which is the dominant theme of Baker’s book), it’s interesting to see the degree to which the poem is able to countenance the fact that there is no unified past for this country, even if there remains some version of a united future (figures from Baker: Distribution of the [U.S.] population by race and Hispanic origin: 1980: White, 83.2%; Black (only), 11.7%; Hispanic (all races), 6.4%; Asian, 1.5%; 2005: White, 80.4%; Black (only), 12.9%; Hispanic (all races), 14.1%; Asian, 4.2% ; Distribution of the [U.S.] population by region: 1980: Northeast, 21.7%; Midwest, 26%; South, 33.3%; West, 19.1%; 2004: Northeast: 18.6%; Midwest: 22.3%; South: 36.1%; West: 23%-- I quote these figures simply to show the most obvious kind of changes in the mix, and to show -- one of the obvious points that Baker wants to understand statistically -- that the U.S. was a very different place in 2005 than it was in 1980). Pinsky makes some gestures toward the idea that the United States, as any kind of unity, is perhaps the supreme fiction of our history and as such a concept that may not stand forever (he’s very effective at the kind of “Ozymandias” statements that poets are fond of, showing that nothing, ultimately, stands the test of time -- in Pinsky’s case, it’s earned by reflecting on Horace’s place in the Rome of Augustus: Horace who had backed Brutus after the assassination of Caesar, but who Fortuna was kind to, so that he could write from pastoral remove from Rome, not only about the vagaries of favor, but also about ultimate ends (“Death is the chalk-line towards which all things race”), but Pinsky accepts that the only thing “writ in stone” is an epitaph, and he’s not trying to write one for his generation: the speaker is a youngish man whose children are still in school.

For Pinsky, what seems the real stretch of the imagination is not how it might all come to end, but how it ever came to be -- this “nation under God, indivisible,” that is -- which brings him up against those prairies, a nice metaphor for the Midwesterners (to my mind), who, it seems Easterners (who never went out there) and Westerners (who kept going) can’t seem to understand. Something in Pinsky’s evocation of those wide open spaces made hover in my mind a long-gone time when one could simply move away from any constraining regional prison by going further West -- a time, in other words, when one could escape “groups” by finding a place they hadn’t gotten to yet. It’s a nice idea, “the 19th century version of America,” let’s say. What Baker’s account of the U.S. of my adult years (I turned 21 in 1980) has me considering -- and Pinsky’s Malcolm X quotation helps bring that home -- is that, on this Independence Day, 2008, the only truly meaningful freedom I can imagine is independence from the U.S.

I don’t want to fight in a holy war
I don’t want the salesmen knockin’ at my door
I don’t want to live in America no more
–Arcade Fire, “Windowsill” (2007)

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