Arguing with America

"It's rather counterintuitive for poets to write in a sort of so-called patriotic way because it's the nature of good poetry to move towards mystery or uncertainty. If you say, I love America, you love America, maybe we're done and there's nothing to talk about. So for poets, a bigger tradition, I think, is the kind of poem that argues with America, that addresses America and in a way, that is our patriotism."

~ Tess Taylor, from "Celebrating The U.S., In Verse," All Things Considered, July 4, 2012

Map, Jasper Johns, 1961 

Immigrant Picnic
by Gregory Djanikian, from Poetry magazine, July 1999 

It's the Fourth of July, the flags
are painting the town,
the plastic forks and knives
are laid out like a parade.

And I'm grilling, I've got my apron,
I've got potato salad, macaroni, relish,
I've got a hat shaped   
like the state of Pennsylvania.

I ask my father what's his pleasure
and he says, "Hot dog, medium rare,"
and then, "Hamburger, sure,   
what's the big difference,"   
as if he's really asking.

I put on hamburgers and hot dogs,   
slice up the sour pickles and Bermudas,
uncap the condiments. The paper napkins   
are fluttering away like lost messages.

"You're running around," my mother says,   
"like a chicken with its head loose."

"Ma," I say, "you mean cut off,
loose and cut off   being as far apart   
as, say, son and daughter."

She gives me a quizzical look as though   
I've been caught in some impropriety.
"I love you and your sister just the same," she says,
"Sure," my grandmother pipes in,
"you're both our children, so why worry?"

That's not the point I begin telling them,
and I'm comparing words to fish now,   
like the ones in the sea at Port Said,   
or like birds among the date palms by the Nile,
unrepentantly elusive, wild.   

"Sonia," my father says to my mother,
"what the hell is he talking about?"
"He's on a ball," my mother says.

"That's roll!" I say, throwing up my hands,
"as in hot dog, hamburger, dinner roll...."

"And what about roll out the barrels?" my mother asks,
and my father claps his hands, "Why sure," he says,

"let's have some fun," and launches   
into a polka, twirling my mother   
around and around like the happiest top,   

and my uncle is shaking his head, saying
"You could grow nuts listening to us,"   

and I'm thinking of pistachios in the Sinai
burgeoning without end,   
pecans in the South, the jumbled
flavor of them suddenly in my mouth,
wordless, confusing,
crowding out everything else.