America | a poem by Tony Hoagland

A friend pointed me to this poem by Tony Hoagland and I absolutely love it.  And yet, I’m so saddened by it.  So true, so poignant, so real.  We’re in such a sorry state of affairs that I feel so completely helpless in.  I hate to embrace my inner ostrich and bury my head in the sand as I watch this world that I love so much slowly disintegrate before my eyes, but really… how can the actions of one person – ME – make a significant impact that’s impactful enough?

They say that one person can have a great impact, and if every other person followed suit, tremendous change can be realized.  Yet why have I grown so cynical, so bitter? I’m so sad that this world’s demise is expedited as we continue to build and buy things that people don’t need and pollute our drinking water.  I could go on and on about the larger problems that this world is facing, but these thoughts exhaust me and make me so sad.  I oft find myself intentionally ignoring the problems of this world for fear of knowing the truth and realizing the power it has over me.  I don’t like it.  I don’t like that I have embraced apathy because I, like so many other people, feel completely helpless.

Regardless, I still find the truth of this poem about America to be so very beautiful.  I hope you enjoy it.

America | by Tony Hoagland

Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison
Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,
And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu
Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels
Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America
And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain,
or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade,
And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood but money
That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and—this is the weird part—,
He gasped “Thank god—those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart—
And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty”—
Which was when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
Would never speak in rhymed couplets,
And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, “I am asleep in America too,
And I don’t know how to wake myself either,”
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:
“I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.”
But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be
When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river
Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters
And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?


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