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so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
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But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue?
It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice,
and madness, without tuition or restraint.
― Edmund Burke
When I was a little kid, we’d have a cookout, with some miniature American flags for decoration, and there was a special tri-flavored ice cream from a local diary – bands of strawberry, vanilla, and blueberry – and I got to wave some sparklers around after it got dark enough, and then I was sent to bed. As I grew bigger, there were school pageants before the Fourth, and on that evening my family sometimes went to professionally done fireworks displays put on by one of the local municipalities or service clubs. And by the time I was in high school, we could see fireworks extravaganzas on TV, carefully timed to the music of John Phillip Sousa.
But Good Lord, when I went looking for some “Fourth of July poetry” for this morning’s TCS, I found an awful lot of truly awful poetry.
Until I stumbled on “Immigrant Picnic,” and it made me laugh.
I hope it makes you laugh too.
by Gregory Djanikian
It’s the Fourth of July, the flags
are painting the town,
the plastic forks and knives
are laid out like a parade.
And I’m grilling, I’ve got my apron,
I’ve got potato salad, macaroni, relish,
I’ve got a hat shaped
like the state of Pennsylvania.
I ask my father what’s his pleasure
and he says, “Hot dog, medium rare,”
and then, “Hamburger, sure,
what’s the big difference,”
as if he’s really asking.
I put on hamburgers and hot dogs,
slice up the sour pickles and Bermudas,
uncap the condiments. The paper napkins
are fluttering away like lost messages.
“You’re running around,” my mother says,
“like a chicken with its head loose.”
“Ma,” I say, “you mean cut off,
loose and cut off being as far apart
as, say, son and daughter.”
She gives me a quizzical look as though
I’ve been caught in some impropriety.
“I love you and your sister just the same,” she says,
“Sure,” my grandmother pipes in,
“you’re both our children, so why worry?”
That’s not the point I begin telling them,
and I’m comparing words to fish now,
like the ones in the sea at Port Said,
or like birds among the date palms by the Nile,
unrepentantly elusive, wild.
“Sonia,” my father says to my mother,
“what the hell is he talking about?”
“He’s on a ball,” my mother says.
“That’s roll!” I say, throwing up my hands,
“as in hot dog, hamburger, dinner roll….”
“And what about roll out the barrels?” my mother asks,
and my father claps his hands, “Why sure,” he says,
“let’s have some fun,” and launches
into a polka, twirling my mother
around and around like the happiest top,
and my uncle is shaking his head, saying
“You could grow nuts listening to us,”
and I’m thinking of pistachios in the Sinai
burgeoning without end,
pecans in the South, the jumbled
flavor of them suddenly in my mouth,
crowding out everything else.
“Immigrant Picnic” by Gregory Djanikian appeared in the July 1999 issue of Poetry magazine
Gregory Djanikian was not known to me, so I went browsing through some of his other poetry, and found two more poems which seem appropriate for the Fourth of July.
Because they are a reminder that we are still “a nation of immigrants” and that is “as American as apple pie” and spaghetti, tacos, and chop suey; curry, challah, and couscous; or paprikash, tabouli, and lavash.
Sailing to America
by Gregory Djanikian
The rugs had been rolled up and islands of them
Floated in the centers of every room,
And now, on the bare wood floors,
My sister and I were skimming among them
In the boats we’d made from newspaper,
Sheets of them pinned to each other,
Dhows, gondolas, clippers, arks.
There was a mule outside on the street
Braying under a load of figs, though mostly
There was quiet, a wind from the desert
Was putting the city to sleep,
But we were too far adrift, the air
Was scurfy and wet, the currents tricking
Our bows against reef and coral
And hulls shearing under the weight of cargo.
“Ahoy and belay!” I called to my sister,
“Avast, avast!” she yelled back from her rigging,
And neither of us knew what we were saying
But the words came to us as from a movie,
Cinemascopic, American. “Richard Widmark,”
I said. “Clark Gable, Bogie,” she said,
“Yo-ho-ho.” We had passed Cyprus
And now there was Crete or Sardinia
Maybe something larger further off.
The horizon was everywhere I turned,
The waters were becoming turgid,
They were roiling, weeks had passed.
“America, America, land-ho!” I yelled directionless.
“Gibraltar,” my sister said, “Heave to,”
And signalling a right, her arm straight out,
She turned and bravely set our course
North-by-northwest for the New World.
Did we arrive? Years later, yes.
By plane, suddenly. With suitcases
And something as hazy as a future.
The November sun was pale and far off,
The air was colder than we’d ever felt,
And already these were wonders to us
As much as snow would be or evergreens,
And it would take me a long time
Before I’d ever remember
Boats made of paper, islands of wool,
And my sister’s voice, as in a fog,
Calling out the hazards,
Leading me on, getting us there.
“Sailing to America” from Falling Deeply into America, © 1989 by Gregory Djanikian – Carnegie Mellon University Press
A Brief History of Border Crossings
by Gregory Djanikian
Inevitable that it should happen:
the bus I’m on pulls into
any sleepy town on the border
between here and the paradise just beyond,
and the old anxiety comes back —
how the rarest Chinese vase I’ve never seen
will suddenly bulge out of my luggage,
how the prescription in my pocket for lozenges
is actually a summons for interrogation.
Was it not so many years ago, in Alexandria,
that the borders around us were slowly
shutting down like huge metal grates?
And somehow we were getting out,
the douanier with a gold tooth
looking though all our luggage,
eyeing me though I said nothing back,
repeated nothing a boy might overhear
in parlor or bedroom alcove.
And at nineteen, when I swore
allegiance to the republic
for which it stands, I held
the Certificate as if it were a lost
occult text, the paper an unearthly green
like the color of play money.
So is it any wonder that even signs
such as “Entering Texas” or
“Welcome to New York,” should shoot
a needle of paralysis up my spine,
like the heroin I’ve never carried,
certain it was there?
“A Brief History of Border Crossings” appeared in the April 1999 issue of Poetry magazine
Gregory Djanikian (1949 – ) was born into an Armenian family in Alexandria, Egypt. He came to America with his family when he was eight years old. He was for many years the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Honored by Poetry magazine with both the Eunice Tietjens Prize and their Friends of Literature Prize, Djanikian also won the Anahid Literary Award from the Armenian Center at Columbia University. His poetry collections include Sojourners of the In-Between, Dear Gravity, So I Will Till the Ground, Years Later, Falling Deeply into America, and The Man in the Middle.
In memory of my friend Ani Dabat, another Armenian
who came to America — from Beirut — with her two children,
because she didn’t want them to accept
the bombings as a normal part of life.
You will always be missed.