In This America

My thanks to Hila Ratzabi for including “In This America” in Storyscape 18.  If you hop over to the  issue (click here), you’ll notice that the journal places the poems and stories in one of three categories: “Truth,” “Untruth,” and “We Don’t Know & They Won’t Tell Us.”  “In This America” is, alas, “Truth” to the best of my ability to register it.

  • Click here for the text of the poem, if you’d like to read it.
  • Click here for a recording of the poem, if you’d rather listen to it.

What follows is a brief introductory sketch (a bit of context, a bit of reflection):

When I was a boy in the 1950s, the saying went “A man’s home is his castle.” And as a boy, a working class boy in the west, I took that for granted. What could be more American than aspiring to make enough to have a home and support the woman who would tend it. And the saying, of course, assumed (implied and enforced?) a whole range of inequalities that as a boy, a working class boy in the west, I tended not to notice, because in my world those inequalities went without saying and mostly without conscious notice.  And in any case the inequality that most directly shaped my reality—even as I never quite thought about it either—had to to do with class and to a lesser extent with region.

Today, the saying might go: “A man’s truck is his castle” (and the more chrome the better).  “In This America” tries, I think, to explore that gap, both from inside it and outside it.  The immediate context was an extended time back in California last summer while my father was in the hospital following a heart attack.  The occasion was in part the presidential campaign rhetoric.  “Make America Great Again”?  How could I not be dismayed by the cynical, exploitative use of the slogan?  How could I not be frustrated and worried by the other campaign’s seeming failure to understand that slogan’s coercive power?

“Me and Bobby McGee” includes the line “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”  Most people probably know that line from Janis Joplin’s recording.  But it’s worth remembering that Kris Kristofferson, who also recorded the song, wrote it as a country song.  And the “Freedom” in these two are not the same, nor is the “nothin’.”

In Joplin’s version we turn away from mere social conventions (and restrictions and coercive inequalities). We trade the mortgage payment on the suburban bungalow and the dream of paying country club dues for the freedom the open road and taking whatever comes as it comes.  And this rejection of (what Dylan once termed) “suck-cess” is a kind of liberation—bittersweet in its cost but also a move that generates a kind of redemptive authenticity.  In Kristofferson’s version, the “me” is already on the social and economic margin, already outside the possibility of “suck-cess.” And the “Freedom” that comes from walking away from a rented room comes in recognizing that one never had anything to “lose” in the first place.  In “Me and Bobbie McGee” as a country song, Freedom is accepting that loss is all one has, all one has ever had, all one is allowed to have.  That, too, is a kind of bittersweet authenticity.

People who’ve read “In This America” have had a range of responses to it.  I’ve been told it’s satire and told that it’s a political poem.  I’ve been told that it denounces and told that it celebrates.  I’ve characterized it in an e-mail or two as “random musings of a California Redneck.”  But that’s at least somewhat disingenuous. My friend and long-time colleague Jim Kalmbach offered the comment that most startled me (and that I most value), when he termed the poem “a totally Redneck Howl.”  In this characterization, Jim, I think, is responding to the poem’s mix of dismay and anger, a mix that I think is central to it.  But if Howl confesses the individual through a vision of “the best minds of my generation,” this poem is perhaps more an an individual’s attempt to confess something communal.

But whatever it is, I would maintain that in the world of this poem—a world somewhat mine and in other ways no longer mine—a man’s castle (if he could even imagine there being one) is not his “home.”  Rather it’s his truck, shiny new or work worn.  And the world of this poem is closer to Kristofferson’s “Bobby McGee” than it is to Joplin’s—much as I loved her vision of the song and love it still.  And just as I love Kristofferson’s, even as I know they cannot both be true and yet know they are.