A place for the perplexed: Part three


by Emilio DeGrazia, 8/25/08 • I’m relieved when all the cars and pickups sporting flags these days go somewhere away. I can never stand still long enough for the sadness to sink in when I face the American flag, now crowded with fifty stars and many invisible satellites. Though I’m aware that prayer doesn’t move plows, I still bow my head whenever “America the Beautiful” is played, wondering if the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and revolutionary democracy committed to human rights have made their new home in The Hague or if they are homeless too, knocking on the doors of neighborhood courthouses and jails for a place to squat. Call it the price of empire.

Emilio DeGrazia (edegrazia@winona.edu) has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree, from which “A Place for the Perplexed” is taken. He lives downstream in Winona.

It’s hard to feel at home when it becomes harder rather than easier to call an enemy a friend. I’d like to care about a place that cares to keep its people from feeling like aliens. I’m not unappreciative of the actual privileges my Americanism confers. Whenever a new war is announced Social Security is an especially reassuring project, and citizenship certification is one way to outwit the cunning of history. I deeply appreciate any help I get protecting my rights to life, the thought of liberty, and the pursuit of a little acreage. I especially appreciate the honest police officer who happens by my house in the dead of night.

So what’s eating me, you ask, as I ask what’s still eating Them, Americans too, the men and boys and women and girls slouched as they sit on orange crates, porch stoops, and curbs on the other side of a Tireman line that expands into bloody smears on the Cold War maps of Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and now the Middle East. Well-organized waste and greed and legislated war. The horror, the horror! The sorrow and pity, the overwhelming responsibility and shame. I, American, did that to Them because I live and vote here too? Deliver me from evil, please, somehow from my share of the taxes that sponsor death.

In my younger days Windsor, city across a river a few hundred yards from downtown Detroit, always seemed less foreign than Columbus, Ohio, or Columbus, Indiana, or Columbus, Georgia—all three places teeming with strangers who speak bizarre-sounding English dialects. In San Pietro, Calabria, Italy, I hear a dialect so familiar that I feel an immediate kinship to the cousins I’ve only spoken to twice in my life. The familiarity is immediate and profound, the shared language creating a tribal identity that makes American citizenship feel like an acquired luxury rather than natural inheritance. In Paris or Rome I’m not scared in the streets the way I am in Minneapolis, New Orleans, or Detroit. How far do I allow America to intrude on me?

To love it or leave it is impossible. As American I’m expected to subscribe to the high-minded work of empire state building while walking over the homeless on city streets. What can I do but draw a line in the sand that separates citizenship from civility, then cast my vote against prevailing ill-winds? My consolation is savory: Those of us who have trouble loving America are as stuck as those who claim to love it are stuck with me. As accidents of birth we together are trying to survive the state’s monopoly on survival skills, its market share of state-sponsored nukes and anthrax strains, for example. Even as these clever defensive mechanisms put my life in more danger this year than last, the right and left American in me waxes sentimental about America the Beautiful and agrees to pretend the differences can be worked out.

But the differences are spacious. Once, surrendering to an impulse to reconnect with an ancient sweetheart from Ohio nights, I spent hours pouring through telephone books looking for her name. America is large; it contains multitudes. And she is lost in that America. George Kennan, master architect of our Cold War complex, now authorizes deconstruction as the best policy:

I have a great lack of confidence, in fact a great distrust, of the monster nation, where there is the exertion of political authority over millions and millions of people from some given center.

That applies to all the monster nations of today: to ourselves, to the Russians, to the Chinese, to the Indians, and it may come to apply to Brazil. I think they are dangerous to themselves, as well as everybody else. I think they attribute to their centralized governments virtues and powers that are beyond the human.

You lose all real, intimate connection between the source of power and the people themselves.
(New Yorker, 1/10/00)

So that government is best which governs least in a smaller place. With available pond space getting scarce these days, I’m not given to believing that government is best which governs not at all. The Jefferson in me conjures a piece of ground where I can cultivate broccoli, beans, tomatoes, garlic, corn, and belief in property rights. An acre would do, though I was warned decades ago by the New York Times that it would make me un-American, even in novels:

The elemental, the eternal plowman, does not belong in American fiction. He is not an American phenomenon. In a country of free land, where nearly a generation of farmers has pulled up stakes and moved on, there can be no question of the European peasant pieties—rooted in endless generations dwelling on the same spot.

(Editorial, New York Times, November 7, 1931)

So I can’t go home again, as Odysseus did after he tired of cruising, even to an acre of dirt doing its redundant thing. Peasant pieties, grounded for centuries on the predictability of seasonal cycles that bound hus-bands to houses and husbandry, are defunct. Current fashions insist that I live digitally, in harmony with a stream of noisy logos calculated to make me narcissistic, overweight, and perplexed. Meanwhile, I am still roughly Dearbornite and Detroiter and SSN XXX-XX-XXXX and Winonan and good American helping to keep Minnesota clean. One doesn’t have to be Einstein to know that with names, as with particles, not all those that can be counted really count, and not all that count can be counted. I think, therefore I am confused.

About my place in life: I can’t satisfy the requirements of all my names, and there is neither time nor space enough for them to count equally in a world so various and vast. Therefore, for whatever it’s worth, I hereby authorize this partially blank page as my place in life, and my address. Here is where I singularly live, for better and worse, ‘til death do us part. Here is where everything comes home to roost and to be composed, as intensely and nakedly as I can endure.

From here place ripples concentrically away, confusedly and unevenly, into the neighborhood and toward Otherness, the circles dimming as they distance themselves from view. Apart from this page I circle my chair, then wander to the kitchen, the window and front porch. The songster next door and the laughter of children lure me into the back yard where my plowman acre is compressed into a few tomato, bean and onion plants strip-farmed along the good fences that make such a good neighbor of me. And the neighbors are good, even the strangest ones who improve as their stories get through to me. Walking expands time into any small space nearby—so I prefer to walk, to the library and grocery store, to Central the neighborhood elementary school, past three churches to City Hall and the shop on Main Street that is neither up nor downtown. Place has presence wherever I walk and there my politics count in a way my votes do not.

Beyond my house and nameless neighborhood is an abstraction named Winona, town rich enough for me to deposit lots of names and faces into my memory bank. Beyond the city limits others live along a Mississippi River valley defined by bluffs so beautifully lush in summertime that Mark Twain said he’d never seen anything so green. I don’t know what to make of all that nature out there beyond the bluffs, whatever it is and what’s left of it. Nature perhaps is true wit to advantage dressed, often as artifice and rarely as Art. Nature makes for nice poems, but as narrative it has too many far-off settings and characters and no evident plot or theme. Beyond my house and neighborhood, on the other side of city limits and bluffs, actual people and properties blur into an Otherness at once strange, wonderful, and vaguely feared. I seldom glance at the stars for fear that they may get to the voids in me.

My close circles are pleasant enough, fluid and semi-permeable, so Otherness does get in, especially when the TV is on to bring death, taxes, alienation, and Tireman into the comfort of my living room. But now and then I go out—already been to London, Paris, Rome and San Pietro, the small Italian village that got lost in the crowd at Ellis Island in 1936. Each of these places is part of my doom and moveable feast. I’ve also been to Thebes, Knossos, Jerusalem, St. Petersburg, Gopher Prairie, Yoknapatawpha, Macondo, Hell, and the Cape of Good Hope—dizzingly guided there by Beatrice, Catherine and Heathcliff, the Grand Inquisitor, Mary Shelley, Arthur Gordon Pym, Blake’s Tigers and Lambs, Tiresias, and Mr. MaGoo. Now and again the Pequod chasing a phantom whale takes me to the watery parts of the world. I love the opening line of that dense tome: “Call me Ishmael.” As if Ishmael is, and is not, Ishmael. As if every name, no matter how familiar, has Otherness in it too. Against Otherness, here too in the blankness of this page, I can make war, or with it I can make love, or conversation, or art.

My neighbor, the Welshman sailor going off to Greenland next July, wants conversation these days. I’d better ask him over soon for a beer. In the past we’ve talked a lot about politics, so we need to compare notes about how to provide our children survival skills. I think they’ll need to learn how to dodge, assume disguises, play hide and seek, and read signs. I want him to see my chair and my half-written page, and I suspect he’ll bring over a tubeful of fishpaste (the really terrific stuff I lugged here for him from Iceland) that I’ll just have to taste.

Iceland—I was in the airport there a short space ago. The air outside tasted cold and clean, but I can’t really say I’ve ever been to Iceland.