from An Explanation of America


IV. Countries and Explanations

by Robert Pinsky

Gogol explains his country as a troika:
“What Russian doesn’t like fast driving,” he says,
“Exalted by the dark pines flashing past
Like smoke? . . . And you, my Russia, racing on
To God knows where in an endless, manic blur,
Like the most birdlike troika ever made
By a Russian peasant with an axe and chisel:
No screws, no metal—thundering past the milestones
Like spots before your eyes; and spreading out
Evenly over half the world! . . . A blur;
A jingling of bells, and rattling bridges; the road
Smokes under your wheels as everything falls behind;
The horses take fire, barely touching the earth;
And you become entirely a flow of air,
Inspired by God—Russia, where do you fly?”

She doesn’t answer. The air is torn to shreds
And becomes mere wind behind the flying troika;
And the other countries, with nervous glances sideways—
So many pedestrians, startled at the curb—
Step to one side: astonished at the speed
And eloquence of Gogol’s explanation,
His country thundering madly down the highway . . . .

Somebody might explain a troubled time
By saying, “It’s because they killed the railroads”:
Because a child who hears a whistle at night
Can hear it drawing closer to the bed
And further in a line, along a vein,
While highways murmuring in the night are like
A restless river, grown unpredictable
A way that rivers don’t.
And yet the shadows
From headlights as they circled my bedroom walls
Have given me comfort too, the lights and whistle
Like two different sentimental songs
At night. And though the cars and highways do stifle
The downtowns and their sweet co-operation
(The City Bakery, the Paramount, the stores)
I love a car—a car, I guess, is like
One’s personality, corrupt and selfish,
Full of hypnotic petty pains and joys,
While riding on a train is like the mind,
The separate reveries, the communal rhythm
Of motion in a line, along a vein. . . .

The communal speed of trains and happy freedom
In a car are like the troika: speed making plain
The great size of its place, the exhilaration
Of change which the size evokes—the schedules, pillows
And porters on the train, the thrill of wit
And aggression in a car, choosing a lane—
Yet some day, tamed and seasoned, our machines
Might make plain that America is a country:
Another country like others with their myths
Of their uniqueness, Tara and Golden Peru
And headlong Mother Russia or Colombia,
Finlandia and the Cowboy’s Prayer, and even
Queen Helvetia; each place a country
With myths and anthems and its heroic name.

And motion would be a place, and who knows, you
May live there in the famous national “love
Of speed” as though in some small town where children
Walk past their surnames in the churchyard, you
At home among the murmur of that place
Unthinkable for me, but for the children
Of that place comforting as an iceman’s horse.

Because as all things have their expectations,
True or false, all can come to seem domestic.
The brick mills of New England on their rivers
Are brooding, classic; the Iron Horse is quaint,
Steel oildrums, musical; and the ugly suburban
“Villas” of London, Victorian Levittowns,
Have come to be civilized and urbane.

And so, although a famous wanderer
Defines a nation, “The same people living
In the same place,” by such strange transformations
Of time the motion from place to place itself
May come to be the place we have in common.
The regions and their ways—like Northern Michigan
And its Rutabaga Pasties, or Union City
With its Cuban and Armenian churches—will be
As though Officially Protected Species.
The Shopping Center itself will be as precious
And quaint as is the threadmill now converted
Into a quaint and high-class shopping center.
For place, itself, is always a kind of motion,
A part of it artificial and preserved,
And a part born in a blur of loss and change—
All places in motion from where we thought they were,
Boston before it was Irish or Italian,
Harlem and Long Branch before we ever knew
That they were beautiful, and when they were:
Our nation, mellowing to another country
Of different people living in different places.


This closing passage of Part One of An Explanation of America (Princeton University Press, 1979) was first published in American Poetry Review, and is posted here by permission of the author.

About the Author:

Robert Pinsky is an American poet, translator, and critic. His most recent books are Selected Poems from Farrar Straus Girous and Singing School from W.W. Norton. He teaches at Boston University.

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