Alicia Ostriker’s “The History of America” for 4th of July


On this 4th of July, aka Independence Day, we think — hopefully — about freedom, which should mean, on this of all holidays, freedom from oppression, tyranny, freedom of speech, religion, and the press, freedom which comes from the rule of law, which does NOT mean “law and order” or “police state,” as Trump would have it, but rather means NO ONE is above the law, certainly not the president or any of his cabinet, certainly not members of Congress or the judiciary, all of whom are public servants. With a president who has never acknowledged publicly that he too is subject to the law, who taunts the freedoms made part of the Constitution in the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, promoting only the second amendment, which he thinks means everyone must be armed with assault weapons, or at least be able to exercise their “right” to wield such weapons. But then, the history of America has always had its overbearing side.

And no one has expressed this more eloquently than Alicia Ostriker in her breathtaking poem “The History of America.” If America has national treasures, Ms. Ostriker is certainly one of them, having written a lifetime of enduring poetry on the most vital subjects of our time.

The History of America

—for Paul Metcalf

A linear projection: a route. It crosses
The ocean in many ships. Arriving in the new
Land, it cuts through and down forests and it
Keeps moving. Terrain: Rock, weaponry.
Dark trees, mastery. Grass, to yield. Earth,
Reproachful. Fox, bear, coon, wildcat
Prowl gloomily, it kills them, it skins them,
Its language alters, no account varmint, its
Teeth set, nothing defeats its obsession, it becomes
A snake in the reedy river. Spits and prays,
Keeps moving. Behind it, a steel track. Cold,
Permanent. Not permanent. It will decay. This
Does not matter, it does not actually care,
Murdering the buffalo, driving the laggard regiments,
The caring was a necessary myth, an eagle like
A speck in heaven dives. The line believes
That the entire wrinkled mountain range is the
Eagle’s nest, and everything tumbles in place.
It buries its balls at Wounded Knee, it rushes
Gold, it gambles. It buys plastics. Another
Ocean stops it. Soon, soon, up by its roots,
Severed, irrecoverably torn, that does not matter,
It decides, perpendicular from here: escape.

A prior circle: a mouth. It is nowhere,
Everywhere, swollen, warm. Expanding and contracting
It absorbs and projects children, jungles,
Black shoes, pennies, blood. It speaks
Too many dark, suffering languages. Reaching a hand
Toward its throat, you disappear entirely. No
Wonder you fear this bleeding pulse, no wonder.

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Filed under Poetry, Poets, women poets, Women's poetry

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