Awake in America

How can we process the barrage of data in which we live? It’s hard to make sense of the huge events that shape current history, and yet here they are, paraded in front of us replayed at 6, 9, 10, 11 and in-between, mingled with small horrors, trivia, obligation, inspiration–an overwhelming soup, seasoned with complicity and powerlessness.

Tony Hoagland and Dean Young are poets whose work seems to me to address this in particular. So I thought I’d post a few poems over the next few days–one by each of them, a few by others. Let me know what you think.


Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says America is for him a maximum security prison whose walls

Are made of Radio Shacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials;

And as I contemplate 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 funny 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 is 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 phoney 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?

Tony Hoagland

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