Robert Pinsky

I. Prologue: You

As though explaining the idea of dancing
Or the idea some other thing
Which everyone has known a little about
Since they were children, which children learn themselves
With no explaining, but which children like
Sometimes to hear the explanations of,
I want to tell you something about our country,
Or my idea of it: explaining it
If not to you, to my idea of you.

Dancing is the expression by the body
Of how the soul and brain respond to music—
And yes, not only to the sensual, God-like,
Varying repetitions which we love
But also, I admit it, to harmony, too:
As of a group. But what the Brownies did
Gathered inside a church the other day
(Except for one flushed Leader, smiling and skipping
With shoes off through the dance) was Close Drill: frowning,
The children shuffled anxiously at command
Through the home-stitched formations of the Square Dance.
Chewing your nails, you couldn’t get it straight.
Another Leader, with her face exalted
By something like a passion after order,
Was roughly steering by the shoulders, each
In turn, two victims: brilliant, incompetent you;
And a tight, humiliated blonde, her daughter.
But before going on about groups, leaders,
Churches and such, I think I want to try
To explain you. Countries and people of course
Cannot be known or told in final terms…
But can be, in the comic, halting way
Of parents, explained: as Death and Government are.
I don’t mean merely to pretend to write
To you, yet don’t mean either to pretend
To say only what you might want to hear.
I mean to write my idea of you,
And not expecting you to read a word…
Though you are better at understanding words
Than most people I know. You understand
An Old Man’s Winter Night. And I believe,
Compulsive explainer that I am, and you
Being who you are, that if I felt the need
To make some smart, professor-ish crack about
Walt Whitman, the Internment Camps, or Playboy
I could, if necessary, explain it to you,
Who, writing under the name of “Karen Owens,”
Began your “Essay on Kids.”: “In my opinion,
We ‘tots’ are truly in the ‘prime of life,’
Of all creatures on earth, or other planets
Should there be life on such.”
                                              In games and plays,
You like to be the Bad Guy, Clown or Dragon,
Not Mother or Princess. Your favorite creature
Is the Owl, the topic of another “Essay.”
Garrulous, prosy, good at spelling and fond
Of punctuation, you cannot form two letters
Alike or on a line. You suck your thumb
And have other infantile traits, although
A student interviewing “tots” from five
To eight for her psychology project found,
Scaling results, that your ideas of God
And of your dreams were those of an adult.
Though I should never tell yo that (or this)
It occurs to me, thinking of Chaplin, Twain
And others—thinking of owls, the sacred bird
Of Athens and Athene—that it is not
A type (the solitary flights at night;
The dreams mature, the spirit infantile)
Which America has always know to prize.
—Not that I mean to class you with the great
At your age, but that the celebrated examples
(Ted Williams comes to mind) recall your face,
The soft long lashes behind the owlish glasses
Which you selected over “cuter” frames:
That softness—feathery, protective, inward—
Muffling the quickness of the raptor’s eye,
The gaze of liberty and independence
Uneasy in groups and making groups uneasy.