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Two poems about what America (or Minnesota) has become

The following poem was written by Bill Holm who teaches English at a small college in western Minnesota. He is author of a book about his experience as a teacher in X’ian, China. Of Icelandic descent, Holm spends his summers at a cottage in Iceland. The poem was written the day after Holm learned that a much-used bridge across the Mississippi river had collapsed in Minneapolis.

    

Aug. 2, 2007: American News

More black news from Minnesota.
A bridge over the Mississippi falls down: nine dead,
twenty missing, details unclear.
All this arrives in half-understood Icelandic over state radio
while I am driving to Akureyri.
I imagine cars hurtling over the interstate bridge down into
the now tepid waters of the river.
The sky above a humid hundred, cries and shrieks muffled
in the saturated air.

Bridges are not supposed to fall down in invincible ‘can-do’ America.
The Brooklyn Bridge does not fall down.
The iron gates of the locks in the Panama Canal have opened and closed
every day since 1913.
The generators hum below the Hoover Dam to feed the electrical jolt
that cools, lights and irrigates the west.
The motor in the old Buick purrs after 250,000 miles.
We build to last! We are the world’s engineers!

Suddenly we lose all our steadily stupider wars; the currency evaporate,
we’re afraid of every moving shadow.
The Fed-Ex clerk in Minneapolis has never heard of Iceland.
That in Europe? We don’t deliver there. Where’s Retchivelt?
The code book lies on the table in front of him: number 286.
But he either can’t or won’t read it.
So goes business - as Charles Wilson said: the business of America.

Three quarters of us believe in a personal god who saves and punishes.
Three quarters of us can’t find Canada, France, or the Pacific on a map.
We believe in one true god, but not in geography.
Every day Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan appear in the Reykjavik
newspapers: what are they up to now?

Tomorrow I suppose it will be pictures of cars dropping off a collapsed bridge;
Down into the Father of Waters that divides us, east from west,
The waters that begin in Scandinavian, safe, efficient Minnesota and now will
carry bodies downstream in the current through 27 locks and dams that may
or may not open and close and open again as they are directed so that the
ghosts can make their way toward whatever is left of New Orleans.

Oh United States! Walt Whitman thought you might wake up -
though he was not sure - and he wept for you.
Your sleep is deeper now than ever before and none of your ‘information
systems’ are worth a damn to wake you or to hold up the girders of
whatever bridge might carry you through even one more century of history.”

 

Commentary:

“Safe, efficient Minnesota”? So it has seemed for three decades, ever since Time Magazine’s cover story on August 13, 1973, proclaimed Minnesota as “the state that works” - a place of honest government and Scandinavian competence.

But then, a month after the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minnesota, there appeared a story in our daily newspaper about the arrest of Idaho’s conservative U.S. Senator, Larry Craig, in the men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Either this Senator was innocently sitting in a stall with a “wide stance” or he was tapping his feet and reaching under the stall divider in a sexually inviting way. He pled guilty to the charge, hoping, he said, that the incident would go away.

So we may be entering a period of well-deserved soul searching. One might generalize to say that, between the bridge collapse and Senator Craig’s bathroom incident, the Twin Cities, Minnesota, would seem these days to be a dangerous place to pass through.

 

   Second poem: On our Welfare Society

           "I cross ocean,
            poor and broke,
            Take bus,
            see employment folk.
             Nice man treat me
             good in there,
             Say I need to
             see welfare.
             Welfare say,
             "You come no more,
             We send cash
             right to your door."


             Welfare checks,
             they make you wealthy,
             Medicaid it keep
             you healthy!
             By and by,
             I got plenty money,
             Thanks to you,
             American dummy.


             Write to friends
             in motherland,
             Tell them 'come
             fast as you can.'
             They come in turbans
             and Ford trucks,
             I buy big house
             with welfare bucks
             They come here,
             we live together,
             More welfare checks,
             it gets better!


             Fourteen families,
             they moving in,
             But neighbor's patience
             wearing thin.
             Finally, white guy
             moves away,
             Now I buy his house,
             and then I say,
             "Find more aliens
             for house to rent."
             And in the yard
             I put a tent.


             Send for family
             they just trash,
             But they, too,
             draw the welfare cash!
             Everything is
             very good,
             And soon we
             own the neighbourhood.


             We have hobby
             it's called breeding,
             Welfare pay
             for baby feeding.
             Kids need dentist?
             Wife need pills?
             We get free!
             We got no bills!


             American crazy!
             He pay all year,
             To keep welfare
             running here.

             We think America darn good place!
             Too darn good for the white man race.
             If they no like us, they can scram,
             Got lots of room in Pakistan."           
   

 

    

       Commentary:

This poem has been circulating on the Internet for several years. From its reference to Pakistan, it appears that the poem may have originated in a foreign nation since Pakistanis account for a relatively small share of U.S. immigrants. A related postscript claims, however, that “the federal government provides a single refugee with a monthly allowance of $1,890 each and each can also get an additional $580 in social assistance for a total of $2,470. This compares very well to a single pensioner who ... can only receive a monthly maximum of $1,012 in old age pension and Guaranteed Income Supplement.”

The two poems represent different political sides of the American malaise (brought about by America’s rapid decline following the war in Iraq). Bill Holm, a part of Minnesota's literary elite, seems to be lamenting the decline of American competence and, by implication, our educational system. Today’s generation prefers video games and YouTube to reading books.

From that perspective, the second poem represents, perhaps, a bigoted view of immigrants, complaining both of their large families and the generous assistance given to them by the government.

I think the “bigots” have a legitimate complaint: First, there is a tendency among America’s political elite to disparage middle Americans, regarding them as spoiled in comparison with immigrant peoples and to treat them accordingly. Second, the political elite feels good about itself by conspicuous acts of generosity toward disadvantaged groups. They are ethically superior.

Unspoken is the fact that the generous acts require someone else to pay for them. For instance, religious social-service agencies facilitate relocation of immigrants into particular communities without further means of support. This means that the cost of free health care for these people is dumped upon the general taxpayer when many long-time residents of these communities cannot afford to buy health insurance and risk bankruptcy when they become sick.

Again, it would seem appropriate at this time to do some national soul-searching, not only with respect to so-called “American exceptionalism” - the idea that the United States is immune to the normal processes of historical wear and tear - but also our tendency to be self-righteous and moralistic in comparison with other peoples.

For a long time, we Americans were heirs to the scientists, inventors, and industrialists who built a prospering economy. We became smug and complacent about our “success”. But it was a success attributable to those in a previous generation. We ourselves were merely the heirs. And now our inheritance is running thin.

On the other hand, America’s national sickness is concentrated in its political, economic, and cultural elite. The common people, while living in relatively comfortable circumstances compared with many other people, have the capacity to recover, given a renewed sense of a positive identity.

 

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