Robert Pinsky

IV. Countries and Explanations

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 explanations,  
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.