By Campbell McGrath
Featured Art: Jung You (Chu Yu), from the series “Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety in China (Morokoshi nijushiko)” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
If it’s true, as they teach in elementary school,
that ours is a secular republic, not gods but men
do our temples and sacred monuments adorn,
then how to explain the immediacy with which I recall
my baptism into the cult of American identity,
my consecration as a democratic individual,
the very first things I bought at a store by myself—
a cherry Slurpee in a collectible plastic superhero cup
and a pack of baseball cards, hoping to find Bob Gibson.
This was at the 7-Eleven on Porter Street,
and soon the five-and-dime on Wisconsin Avenue
cycled into orbit, musty aisles of G.C. Murphy & Co.
where I might spend my allowance on plastic soldiers,
a balsa wood airplane, a rabbit’s foot keychain,
trinkets of no intrinsic worth ennobled by commerce,
aglimmer with the foxfire of mercantile significance,
toys of thought that blazed in the imagination
every step walking home. Not to jingle pocket change,
not to carry a crumpled dollar bill was to drift untethered
from the enormous comfort and safety of the system,
like the astronaut who crosses Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey,
like a Stone Age tribe wandering into civilization
from some last unmapped Amazonian tributary.
And what does a child crave more than shelter
within the herd, a shared hymnal of commercial jingles
for toothpaste and tuna fish, sitcoms we eyeballed
like a kaleidoscope refracting fragments
of the shambolic wonder-beast, America, I mean,
because even then TV was not only a magic mirror
but a sociological lens, like the revelatory glasses
Roddy Piper wears in They Live, x-ray vision
to lay bare the skeletal urgency of material desire.
Years later, when the Nukak emerged from the rain forest,
their arrival was received as a tragic morality tale,
a corruption of innocence, a postlapsarian seduction,
but the tribesmen expressed little sense of loss
to the journalists, anthropologists and government officials
eagerly gathered at their frontier encampment.
Do you miss your old way of life? Laughter. “No!”
What do you like most about the outside world?
“Hats, pants, frying pans, rice, sugar, matches,
soap, potatoes, onions.” But what about the jungle,
your mother, in which your people lived as one with nature?
“It’s hard catching birds and monkeys for food,”
one hunter explained, “and the caimans have sharp teeth.”
A young woman, breast-feeding her infant, said:
“When you walk all day in the forest, your feet hurt a lot.”
So much for the garden of Eden. So long, utopia,
let us bid farewell to Creepy Crawlers and childish things,
to Monopoly and Battleship and Clue in the basement—
Colonel Mustard with the Wrench in the Conservatory,
or was it Colonel Klink, or Colonel Kurtz,
or Lieutenant Calley with the M-1 beneath the banyan tree?
Was it Charles Manson or Charlie the Tuna,
the Cisco Kid or Ho Chi Minh? Did it matter?
Did we care? Would we ever learn to tell the difference?
The kaleidoscope churns its color-hoard of shards,
the disco ball radiates random asymmetries,
history streams from the darkness like a deliquescent fable,
a blockbuster narrative we live inside, all together,
like a comically dysfunctional primetime family,
bound by the limitations of the genre and the paradigm
of the marketplace, bound in a social compact,
a civic order, an ethos of shapeless and elusive liberty
shimmering like the aurora borealis on the horizon,
the way the universe, when you are twelve years old,
swims in and out of focus, too large to hold in the mind
but too urgent to let go of, days and nights
spellbound at the wonder of one’s own existence,
all the bafflements and appetites of life on earth
encapsulated in a raindrop on a window pane,
a ragged feather in a puddle of melting ice,
a song by the Raspberries coming over the radio
to echo in my heart forever.
Campbell McGrath is the author of ten books of poetry, recently In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012). He has received many of America’s major literary prizes for his work, including the Kingsley Tufts Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, a USA Knight Fellowship, and a Witter-Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. Born in Chicago, he lives with his family in Miami and teaches at Florida International University, where he is the Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing.
Piece originally published in NOR 13.