Letter to America: A Version in Which a Mirror Shatters
By Bill Yake
Once you were everything. My sky and river; my brick-cobbled and gravel streets. Brother and sisters. Mother who planted roses under your eaves; father who planted crabapples in your parking strips. Cousins, great-uncles, all roots in your soil.
You were the great basalt stones in the side lot, newspaper articles of moon-shots, and plans for fallout shelters with naive air filters. You were parks, pines, ponds, and the bully on 17th Avenue with a fancy chemistry set and a 40-inch vertical jump—the tough who eventually left you, America, on an opiate high.
You were—I heard it through the grapevine—Motown harmonies in the high school stairwells, the mimeographed handouts conjugating German verbs, and the Goldwater in ‘64 bumper sticker across my bedroom door. You were Jack’s pompadour and Jackie’s leopard-skin pillbox hat.
Schoolmates died in you, America—one shot working a gas pump, one hitchhiking, one nailed by a speedboat. America, you became a war. Again. And again.
With time, America, I noticed your age, your eroding banks, gasfield tremors, your young men old too soon slumped in alleyways like clear-cut slopes too soaked in rain. Your springs too full of trash, your falls gone dry and crackling, wildfires in your beetle-killed stubble.
I heard your aliases spoken in whispers and sneers: Hangman or Latah; squawfish or northern pike minnow; niggerhead or geode. Some years hysterias swept you—witch trials, the surgical deaths of farm animals, rumors of child torture. Some years you were the distilled high-lonesome of bluegrass, some years the side-winding gravity of Chicago blues, and in some, the summers called love and mayhem, crowds of acidic Dead spun by the Bay.
I’ve read that you bled horribly to hold or free your slaves—whose freedom was, then, too often theoretical. Your nightmares and memories still pulse with lost bison and salmon, with skin drums. Or they’re the silence we can’t hear after the next-door pistol shot.
Your Seminary Street tenement manager—he knew pop songs by the year and prison he’d been locked in, and looked after your cockroaches, your jazz, beat Cadillacs, and offers to work the numbing lines at the fruit cannery down by the piers. Your fences peddled hot TVs and handguns. Your radio preachers stole from the poor and cursed the city; your cities shouted and moved in flashes and shadows. Your drinkers sang; your singers drank.
But America, you were everything: metaphor and fact. Carnies and first aid; tourniquets and Kerouac; one wolf; the imperfect perspective from even your most perfect overlook; rural electricity and reservoirs filling with red silt.
You were my hate and my love, sweet mistreatments and rage, bays with the anthropecene record of western poisons and remedies compiling in your layered silt. With elegantly engineered tramways, ICBMs, and your face imaged from the edge of space you were precedents and presidents, bunk and banks, courts and courting, the dunces and the dances.
Some glue kept you barely from rupture, until it didn’t. We say decay, an imperfect metaphor. We say fray and part, torque and splinter, blanch and fracture. We say disintegration.
I who am you, beg you who am I—pull yourself, America, together.
Bill Yake lives on the verge of Green Cove Creek Ravine–a small chum salmon stream feeding the Southern Salish Sea near Olympia, Washington. His books include This Old Riddle: Cormorants and Rain (Radiolarian Press, 2004) and Unfurl, Kite, and Veer (Radiolarian Press, 2010). In addition to Terrain.org, Bill’s poems have appeared in Orion, Open Spaces, Rattle, and NPR’s Krulwich’s Wonders.