I carried this chapbook around America with me for two weeks, the whole time unread in its entirety. First to Akron, Ohio. Later to Atlanta, Georgia. Okay okay, I read a “Patriot” or two while waiting on my hosts to wake up, or drinking a beer on a stranger’s porch (you see, each poem, thirteen in all, is called that, “Patriot,” is made of 26 stretch-breathing lines). Then I returned home, to Indiana, to Elwood, my hometown. I returned to the porch staring into my grandpa’s cornfield. The corn was much taller than when I left. Why does that surprise me? I read all twelve poems straight up. Then, I paused to feed the goats in the background. Then, I read the poems again.
I find myself repeating myself, the part about the goats, the part about the corn, the part about my hometown, the part about traveling but never moving.
This poem sequence travels through time and space and place—years ago or a night-damp field or cold Wyoming.
It repeats some variation of the phrase “is America.”
“This is America, & so the body, hand-sewn, is over there.”
“Someone always in the process of taking over/With orange beak angled wide is America.”
“Bioluminescence of the highway at night/What is America?”
According to Merriam-Webster, a patriot is “one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests.”
When I searched “American patriot,” the first search result is a company of the same name that wants to rent me a cabin in the Gatlinburg, Tennessee mountains.
See also: the American Patriot Party official web site, whose platform is set firmly on the ideal to “protect, defend and implement the intents set forth in the Originating Founders Letters which includes The Absolute Rights of the Colonists of 1772 and the Declaration of Independence, the documents which define Freedom.”
See also: this eagle picture
See also: this picture of a kneeling soldier.
As I read these poems over and over, I kept thinking about decisions. Decisions we make. Decisions we make for others. Decisions we make for ourselves. See also: decisions that are made for us.
What to do with these physical bodies—to sing or not, to leave or not, to build or not, to undress or not. Paved roads and strip clubs. Foxes done got ran over and the ability to dance. Jail sentences and linebreaks.
The first poem unfurls like one of those familiar American landscapes:
Line of thunderstorms on the weather map.
This is America, & so the body, hand-sewn, is over there.
And so at dawn the Carolina water tower is a peach
Rising like the moon’s ass.
Finite town, rusted trailer, time-bleached house.
How many foxes did we take under our wheels?
What we decided to build. What we decided to let decay. What we decided to end just by starting our engines. Though, this is not a poem about a particular place. It’s a poem about how the place imposes on us, and more aggressively and more accurately, how we push back.
Is there such a thing as New Patriotism?
The old connotation of patriot implies “unconditionally,” but of course, there’s a flaw in that, and of course, as we evolve, as a nation, as a people, should/might the definition widen, the way our moral landscape has (okay okay, maybe should/might, or maybe just has partially)? Instead, these poems suggest a negotiation between supporting the country’s interests and peering more closely (as a single dot on a big ass map) at what is necessary, the truth about what does good and what does harm, how (parts of) this place got so shitty in the first place.
See also: racial injustice (continued).
See also: the (real) effects of what we put in our bodies.
See also: who has control of our bodies?
Last week, I drove to Atlanta for the Vouched 2nd birthday party. Skirting my way through Kentucky and Tennessee and a bit into Georgia, right, I saw deer in the distance and dense, rising mountains of green and gorgeous rivers. From my car on the road cutting those mountains, the trees dotted with billboards.
“Fallen are so many dead/Deer along the American highway.”
For the drive to Atlanta, I made a playlist called “America.” Here it is:
“A Horse With No Name” by America “Living Room” by Native America
“Rock and Roll Roosters” by Trout Fishing In America “White America” by Eminem
“Shameless” by This Is Not America “30,000 LBS.” by My America is Watching Tigers Die
“Only In America” by Brooks and Dunn “Made In America” by Jay-Z
“Miss America” by J. Cole “Peaches” by The Presidents of the United States of America
“Breakfast in America” by Supertramp “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde
“Living in America” by James Brown “USA I, II, III, and IV” by Dan Deacon
“America Fuck Yeah” and “Freedom Isn’t Free” by Trey Parker
“Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” by Toby Keith “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen
“Small Town” by John Mellencamp “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus
“God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie
“This Land is Your Land” by Sharon Jones “Living in the Promiseland” by Willie Nelson
“Saddam a Go-Go” by Gwar “Universal Soldier” by Donovan
“Riding With Private Malone” by David Ball “With God on our Side” by Bob Dylan
“Proud to be an American” by Tiki “Born Country” by Alabama
“Where The Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly” by Aaron Tippin
“My Country Tis of Thee” by Crosby & Nash “American Bad Ass” by Kid Rock
“American History X” by ILL Bill “Freedom” by Rage Against The Machine
“Americans” by X-Clan “Freedom of Speech” by Immortal Technique
“Announcing the Death of Osama Bin Laden” by Barack Obama
“Get Up” by The Coup “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy
When one criticizes America, you name the McDonalds and the Wal-Marts, the Zimmermans and Madoffs. When the intent is to praise, we sing of the buffalo and the mountains, the prairies and the fireworks in the sky.
Often, we forget, downplay, evade, and/or ignore the everyday ills and evils of this country—domestic grief, the ridiculous heartbreak (personal, political, and social), etc. Often, we forget the everyday triumphs—the real kind of joy of flexing the luxury muscle of play, the feeling of putting knowledge in one’s head, etc.
These poems exist in that everyday, the good/bad/ugly, both celebratory and critical. On (for?) grand schemes, they make few choices. The fire burns here not to light up the sky or destroy what’s on the ground. These poems craft as they go a sense of living, having lived, the naming as a startling mechanism to remind just how much there is here, right here, hello.
An incomplete list of proper nouns in this chapbook: Tennessee, The Mouse’s Ear (a strip club), the Tire Barn, Morrissey, Mt. Katahdin (in Maine), Wyoming, Snuffer’s Restaurant and Bar, the Seventies, Abigail Adams, Spain.
Though the fire is local in its intentions, these poems do burn loud, do make their decisions known. Like when one brings you this declaration, this tiny tinny list of what America is:
Forever men taking a break with grease
Under their nails is America.
Is the close-captioned word You little
Bitch on the gym TV and is the dull
Line of women on treadmills
Running steady toward the phrase.
While in Atlanta, I received an email response from a friend who I had sent a poem of mine called “A Natural American Spirit,” which I finished on the 4th of July. She said, “I love how your poems are getting more and more American.”
What is an American poem? Is this book called Patriot, this sequence of poems each called “Patriot,” a collection of American poems? The self as American, making decisions, the freedom (or supposed freedom) to do so—write poems, be a person continually, make fire. There’s democracy in the personal, voters (a tiny collection of the selves), history’s calling and how one handles it.
This speaker (Patriot?) returns to moments that shape women, that shape of the woman telling this American story:
“By the pond where my sister and I fed/Ducks in the summer, where we ran/From the tall honking goose.”
“Somewhere I am eighteen and somewhere I still/Plan to get drunk & pass out then suddenly/Awake nearly twenty years later to find/You still means Men in the audience.”
“Somewhere it is 1930 & my aunt is the first/Woman to wear pants in Holmes County.”
What it means to be a woman in America—opportunities, beauty, and abuse, unrelenting being alive:
Upside down her ribcage is a butterfly.
Mother in the airplane aisle, rocking your son:
I love you without envy yet still reaching
Outward and away from one another we persist.
You want to say I deserved it
Which is often what people think
When force is brought against a woman’s
Saurborn Young sings a song in the last poem: “This is America/Irreplaceable and yet/Unnecessary and yet loved.” And then, turns that phrase, the repeated “is America,” into “is this America, still debating/Whether as a woman whether I am worth.”
And I applaud Saurborn Young here, the way I am startled and moved. Writing about America. Writing about being a woman. Writing about being a woman in American. The clusterfuck of emotions and the automatic eyebrow raises. There’s a powerful beauty in making these declarations. And on the other side of that road, there’s a sparkle when she asks that gulp of a question.
Who’s over there with her with that question? Who’s catching it? In the hands or in the gut or in the mouth?
“Population booming we are not unique/Everyone scratching in place.”
These are poems of ultimately what we are—“People everywhere are just people everywhere/Tearing down what we replenish.” Our breath feeding the plants, our hands replanting trees, the cages we built re-opened to release the eagle back to the wild, what we birth.
This all after we’ve chopped and taken and ran over whatever we’ve wanted.
Ultimately, what will we be judged on? Possibly, how we treat those that birthed us, clothed us, rescued us, though right now we’re worried about how fast she can bring us our pizza.
“We are mammals, mammals are animals/So consciousness is a trait of animals/In the hospital at midnight or noon.”