Robert Pinsky

II. Bad Dreams

In a way, every stranger must imagine
The place where he finds himself—as shrewd Odysseus
Was able to imagine, as he wandered,
The ways and perils of a foreign place:
Making his goal, not knowing the real place,
But his survival, and his progress home.
And everyone has felt it—foreign ground,
With its demand on the imagination
Like the strange gaze of the cattle of the Sun—
Unless one is an angel, or a hick,
A tribesman who never made is wander-year.

People who must, like immigrants or nomads,
Live always in imaginary places
Think of some past or word to fill a blank—
The encampment at the Pole or at the Summit;
Comanches in Los Angeles; the Jews
Of Russia or Roumania, who lived
In Israel before it was a place or thought,
But a pure, memorized word which they knew better
Than their own hands.
                                    And at the best such people,
However desperate, have a lightness of heart
That comes to the mind alert among its reasons,
A sense of the arbitrariness of the senses:
Blank snow subordinate to the textbook North.
Like tribesmen living in a real place,
With their games, jokes or gossip, a love of skill
And commerce, they keep from loving the blank of death.

But there are perils in living always in vision—
Always inventing entire whatever paves
Or animates the innocent sand or snow
Of a mere locale. What if the place itself
Should seem a blank, as in a country huge
And open and potential?…the blank enlarges,
And swelling in concentric gusts of quiet
Absorbs the imagination in a cloud
Of quiet, as smoke disperses through a mist,
A vague chimera that engulfs the breath.

That quiet lead me to a stranger’s dread
Of the place frightened settlers might invent:
The customs of the people there, the tongues
They speak, and what they have to drink, the things
That they imagine, might falter in such a place,
Or be too few; and men would live like Cyclopes,
“With neither assemblies nor any settled customs”—
Or Laestrygonians who consume their kind
And see a stranger as his meat and marrow,
And have no cities or cultivated farms.

A man who eats the lotus of his prairie
Or shadow—consumed by his desire for darkness
Till the mind seems itself a dreamy marrow—
Is like those creatures of a traveler’s nightmare.
Even his sentiments about the deer,
Or grass, recall man-eating Polyphemus:
Who, when he cracks like a movie Nazi, sheds
Real tears, making a sentimental speech
To his pet ram.

                        In place of settled customs,
Such a man might set up a brazen calf,
Or join a movement, fanatical, to spite
The spirit of assembly, or of words—
To drown that chatter and gossip, and become
Sure, like machines and animals and the earth.

Such a man—neither a Greek adventurer
With his pragmatic gods, nor an Indian,
Nor Jew—would worship, not an earth or past
Or word, but something immanent, like a shadow…
Perhaps he was once a Protestant, with a God
Whose hand was in every berry, insect, cloud:
Not in the Indian way, but as one hand,
Immanent, above that berry and its name.

And when that hand came to him as a prairie
He beheld pure space as if it were a god,
Or as a devil. And if he lost that hand,
Why wouldn’t he—in his loneliness and love
Of thinking nothing—grow eager to lose himself
Among a brazen crowd, as in a calf,
A certain landscape, or a bird? 
                                                Or say
That he sets out upon that empty plain
Immanent with a quiet beyond all thought
Or words, and the he settles on that ground
Of trial, to invent a mystic home—
And then discovers people there, engaged
Upon their commerce or their gossip, at home
Or wandering as in an actual place,
Attending to their ordinary business:
The ordinary passion to bring death
For gain or glory, as Odysseus
Might feel, would be augmented and inflamed
By the harsh passion of a settler; and so,
Why wouldn’t he bring his death to the Indians
Or Jews, or Greeks who stop for food and water,
To bustle and jabber on his tangled plain?

But my nightmare is not the one you have
To fear, exactly, and if the Cyclops comes
(Lumbering, hungry, unreasoning, drunk or blind)
He may come gently, without commotion, cloaked
More in the manner—as in poems by Auden—
Of a disquieting nurse, an official form
With its inquiry, than of my bad dreams.

For I am father and mother of my man
(Who is no man, but something I imagined
Or a kind of word for something that I fear),
And perhaps I am his child, too: choosing to be
Myself explaining him, or him—like people
Who have mixed blood, and might feel free to choose
To be themselves as Indians, or Cowboys…
With their high cheekbones, blue eyes, and iron hair.

And you and I, who have no Indian blood
(Or Cowboy blood, assuming such a thing)
Imagine two sides of people—with their blood,
A place, a climate, their circumstances fixed
As bounds for choice or for imagination—
Hardly free: the takers ready to kill
To take the theater of their imagined home,
Still half imaginary; the defenders
At home in places that became the more
Imaginary as the white ones took
Tobacco; taught scalping; introduced the horse.

And even Malcolm X, who changed his name
So many times, whom we remember now
Most by that one name which still means “unknown”—
Possibly “free”—must, with his many names
And his red hair, have needed to consider
The kinds of arbitrariness and choice:
The arbitrariness of the blood and senses
Compared to the poles and summits of our choosing,
The text book “Indian”, “American” or “blood”…
The accumulating prison of the past
That pulls us toward a body and a place.

My imaginary man is in that prison,
Though he thinks only of the feral earth,
Making himself less free.
                                        Then let him rest;
And think instead of the European poets
Posed thoughtfully with cigarettes or scarves,
As photographed for a fascist anthology
Of forty years ago, above their verses
About a landscape, tribe, or mystic shadow:
Caught in the prison of their country’s earth
Or its romantic potential, born of death
Or of a pure idea. “…Italy
(Germany, Russia, America, Roumania)
Had never really been a country,” a book
Might say, explaining something.
                                                        What I want
And want for you is not a mystic home
But something—if it must be imaginary—
Chosen from life, and useful. Nietzsche says
We should admire the traffickers and nomads

“Who have that freedom of mind and soul
Which mankind learns from frequent changes of place,
Climate and customs, new neighbors and oppressors.”

Americans, we choose to see ourselves
As here, yet not here yet—as if a Roman
In mid-Rome should inquire the way to Rome.
Like Jews or Indians, roving on the plains
Of places taken from us, or imagined,
We accumulate the customs, music, words
Of different climates, neighbors and oppressors,
Making encampment in the sand or snow.