Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Garden of Verse: 'My America' Is a State of Mind

Reading the November 2016 Verse-Virtual poems in a post-election frame of mind (the most neutral description I can come up with for the state of "Twilight Zone" shock and desperation so many of us are feeling), the theme of "my America" either lying within or mounting a podium in many of these adds an even sharper edge of appreciation for them.
            Donna Hilbert remembers "the way things used to be" in our America for a working woman in her poem "Consciousness Raising." She writes of returning from sales calls 
back to the office where Hustler
fold-outs plastered the phone bank,
where my boss drank gin
from a flask at his desk
and daily asked
for a quickie in the showroom..."

           Steve Klepetar's "How Fascism Comes to America"
marches to a powerful beat, the driving rhythm of the poem's refrains matching the urgency of the subject. The poem's free, wide-ranging imagery further accents the ominous lock-step of its message. I'm particularly struck by the prophetic tone of these lines:
It comes waving flags and singing songs.
It rises from hills and towns;
pours from the sky in torrents of rain.
It hides in plain sight. I have seen it
on the riverbanks parading beneath willows
and pine. I have seen its bonfires everywhere.   

           The same ominous term appears in the title of Joan Mazza's "What did you do when Fascism came to America?" Good poems often rescue the minute particulars of human lives. This poem answers the title's question with facts both concrete and emotive:
I punched out little fishes and flowers in cardstock,
glued them to contrasting cardstock, added glitter,
and words like Peace in sparkly script.

...While my stomach
churned and twisted into knots, while people
protested and shouted, I read Spirals in Time,
learned of the imaginary museum of all possible

shells, wished for a calcified cave I could move into.

That cave or its equivalent, real or imaginary, may start looking good to many of us.

            Another America, the America of immigrant experience, is glimsped in Michael Minsassian's "Waking Up in America," 
a place where dreams are filtered through memories. The poet writes of an uncle:
his stories crowded with chance meetings
with beautiful women, dead Persian poets,
and philosophers who blossom like flowers"
and the color of the swimming pool in a backyard six thousand miles away from his birthplace.

           Thomas Erickson's "Blue," a poem about a black and white America puts the notion of two countries in stark terms. We all know that experience isn't, as we say in other contexts, all 'black and white.' But in our contemporary America it seems the public sphere so often is: 
I go to the jail and
pass by the white jailers
to talk to my black client
about the charge of the black
on black crime brought by
the white DA before we go
in front of the white judge
and eventually the white
jurors who live in their white
enclaves leading their white
lives and afterwards I’ll
talk to his black family
about the time he will serve...
 I was recently one of those white jurors on an all-white jury hearing evidence in a black-on-black crime case, with white judge and attorneys, and frankly found it hard to be sure that justice could be color blind. 
          My notion of America isn't black and white, but vigorously pluralistic and multicultural. Yet as the results from the election indicate, those of us who live on the coasts may not have a very clear picture of the rest of the country.  
          See for these poems and others.