An Explanation of America

Article excerpt

An excerpt from Robert Pinsky's An Explanation of America (1979) appeared in the Autumn 1978 issue of Chicago Review. PINSKY recently commented upon "Braveries":

This section from my book-length poem An Explanation of America has been quoted and excerpted more than some of the others, maybe because it moves through a couple of fairly distinct narrative images: the newborn infant recoiling from the sack of Saguntum by retreating back into the womb and the child taking formal lessons, inside afield house, while her somewhat out-of-place father watches. Other sections of An Explanation of America proceed more eccentrically. Publication in Chicago Review probably had something to do (though I can't really remember) with Robert von Hallberg [who served on the faculty advisory committee for the magazine]. His understanding of my writing, and championing of it, I value beyond measure.

An Explanation of America was published by the Princeton University Press in 1979, and received the Saxifrage Prize, awarded to the best book of poems published by a small or university press. The book is included in The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996, published in 1996 by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Braveries

Once, while a famous town lay torn and burning A woman came to childbed, and lay in labor While all around her people cursed and screamed In desperation, and soldiers raged insanely- So that the child came out, the story says, In the loud center of every horror of war. And looking on that scene, just halfway out, The child retreated backward, to the womb: And chose to make those quiet walls its urn.

"Brave infant of Saguntum," a poet says- As though to embrace a limit might show courage. (Although the word is more like bravo, the glory Of a great tenor, the swagger of new clothes: The infant as a brilliant moral performer Defying in its retreat the bounds of life.)

Denial of limit has been the pride, or failing, Well-known to be shared by all this country's regions, Races, and classes; which all seem to challenge The idea of sufficiency itself... And while it seems that in the name of limit Some people are choosing to have fewer children, Or none, that too can be a gesture of freedom- A way to deny or brave the bounds of time.

A boundary is a limit. How can I Describe for you the boundaries of this place Where we were born: where Possibility spreads And multiplies and exhausts itself in growing, And opens yawning to swallow itself again? What pictures are there for that limitless grace Unrealized, those horizons ever dissolving?

A field house built of corrugated metal, The frosted windows tilted open inward In two lines high along the metal walls; Inside, a horse-ring and a horse called Yankee Jogging around the ring with clouds of dust Rising and settling in the still, cold air Behind the horse and rider as they course Rhythmically through the bars of washed-out light That fall in dim arcades all down the building. …