Online Edition: Fall 2006

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Identity Crisis:

an essay on John Kinsella's America, (a Poem) and the Conception of "American" Nationality


by Julia Istomina

When I came to the United States from the then near-crumbling Soviet Union, America was a vast, vociferous, and unapologetically boisterous "land of opportunity." However, the kind and devoted Russian community quickly informed my parents which neighborhoods and ethnicities, to steer clear of; America's proverbial melting pot seemed more like an impenetrable stew. The United States, a land of multiple, variant possibilities, can also be seen as a land of contrived similarities, without a national identity that goes beyond the arid and ambiguous construction of "the American." Therefore, the cultural connection of this nation is a debased communication, one that must fight through millions of individual backstories, coughing up new episodes of "American Idol" as a symbol of national unity.

"Rebellious, migratory / flights don't end up where / they're supposed to." Such is John Kinsella's depiction of "Cultures" in an earlier work, Peripheral Light. Beyond the fact that, as Peter Porter states in his introduction, Kinsella "knows the whole world still covets a Green Card," America, (A Poem) dissects the notion of culture when it becomes a destabilized force, dependent on mass production of popular icons to ground its territory and its various peoples. Inadvertently, Kinsella, a native Australian who has taught at American institutions like Kenyon College in Ohio, takes us on a migration, a voyage that allows for the consideration of how one acquires a sense of self and a sense of country in a land seemingly overridden with cliché.

Although America is a long poem, the various stages and passages summon a sense of progression depicting the trying-on or acquiring a different culture and identity than the immigrant has previously known. Beginning with the excited phrasing of "great white liners / sailing into New York harbour," Kinsella floats dangerously close to the overly optimistic and rarely successful construction of "great one-liners." He continues with an almost obsessive listing of various American cultural icons and ideologies that practically run off the page. This technique of listing serves the narrative well, because as every language learner knows, one must start with an overly simplified, yet active, language base in order to communicate with the 'natives.'

This process of language acquisition is further explored in the lines, "Baudrillard says: 'Decidedly, / decision decide decimate deciduous,'" where one gets the sense that the narrator is poking around in a dictionary to acquaint himself with close-sounding words and their connotations, as well as their potential arrangement for the construction of a meaningful thought. He takes us "through border controls as if land not occupied... / sometime art, poetry, spicy food," depicting trite images and icons everyone knows--the overly general "spicy food." His individualized perceptions deviate from the 'norm' only later, like a language learner who has achieved enough aptitude in the language that he may subvert it, now that he is more comfortable within the environment.

Kinsella's activist political language never dissipates, but only displaces itself like a pinball pinging against cultural idiosyncrasies and long-held tenets. This creates a palpable static between the conscious wanderer and his new environment. In fact, it is this static that may have drawn our immigrant narrator to America in the first place:

In heightened weather I scrape
carpet fibers from my cuffs,
drawn there by static,
stuck on foreign policy
ruling nothings out, balls in play

Only with the mindset of ruling out nothing can the narrator grope his way through the overly simplistic national tropes and reach the deeper roots of thought beneath America's current identity. The process of actively taking in information gives the narrator a sense of "individual freedom" to make up his own mind.

Taking on the ambiguous and all-encompassing identity of "American" necessarily cuts off the marker of individuality and personal ties to other nationalities. Where immigrants might have the national foods, language, clothes, and idiosyncratic traditions of their home country, we have Wal-Mart, 9/11, and Applebee's to connect us. The perceived arbitrariness of locale in America is depicted in lines such as:

I have a distant uncle by marriage who lived in Chicago.
Or was it a distant auntie and / or cousin by marriage who lived
                                                                                          in Chicago?
Narratively, it matters. Nationalistically, not at all.

In the absence of a strict national congruity, America serves up a profound "sea" of space. There is no familial or cultural authority when making statements or committing political actions; there are just too many different kinds of people in America to either agree or disagree with the proclaiming individual. Therefore, the progression of America (A Poem) toward its final bound, an unapologetically ranting mono-debate titled "Capo dot com," can not only be seen as an afterword, but also as a justification of individual thought. While we are situated "in the US of A, collapsed star absorbing all cultures" or "promoters of seed-stock that is patented," we are free to patent ourselves, as individuals, as necessary.

Given Kinsella's marked political perspective as "passive activist" and fighter for human, animal, and natural rights, it is not difficult to pinpoint his view on the all-encompassing capitalist venture. The sense of America as identity is problematic in its very own nature: America is marked by its organization of economy, a "land of the free" with free enterprise. At the same time, this plan of production and utilization of goods inherently affects our sense of community in respect to how we see and connect with others in this country. When I meet a Russian person, there is a strange, inherent camaraderie, regardless of age, sex, or creed; although this person is a stranger to me, we can relate to one another on a plane of identity that has certain and definitive "trigger" customs. In America, this is more difficult.

I should perhaps say that I have taken classes with Kinsella at Kenyon College, a place that presumably helped inspire this book. I have heard him talk about the inherent injustices committed in his daughter's school, the problematic structure of university systems, the nature of Australia and its violent history at the hands of the English. I have both loved Ohio and hated it for its small-town, simplistic feel; resented the peppering of Krogers and K-Marts while still purchasing goods there many times. I also know the feeling of nostalgia when something foreign becomes native, the smell of Ohioan flowers, poplar trees, the kind greetings of the bookshop ladies, the feeling that something unique is turning in the air.

Inside, the book has a slightly different title to the cover: America or Glow (A Poem). The ambiguity is striking: something may glow because of radiation or perhaps because the moonlight is hitting its peak at night. The word "glow" is multifaceted, adventurous, reliant on the contextual and therefore problematic. So is Kinsella's America.