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Ode to American English

I was missing English one day, American, really,
     with its pill-popping Hungarian goulash of everything
from Anglo-Saxon to Zulu, because British English
     is not the same, if the paperback dictionary
I bought at Bretano’s on the Avenue de l’Opéra
     is any indication, too cultured by half. Oh, the English
know their dahlias, but what about doowop, donuts,
     Dick Tracy, Tricky Dick? With their elegant Oxfordian
accents, how could they understand my yearning for the hotrod,
     hotdog, hot flash vocabulary of the U. S. of A.,
the fragmented fandango of Dagwood’s everyday flattening
     of Mr. Beasley on the sidewalk, fetuses floating
on billboards, drive-by monster hip-hop stereos shaking
     the windows of my dining room like a 7.5 earthquake,
Ebonics, Spanglish, “you know” used as comma and period,
     the inability of 90% of the population to get the present perfect:
I have went, I have saw, I have tooken Jesus into my heart,
     the battle cry of the Bible Belt, but no one uses
the King James anymore, only plain-speak versions,
      in which Jesus, raising Lazarus from the dead, says,
“Dude, wake up,” and the L-man bolts up like a B-movie
     mummy. “Whoa, I was toasted.” Yes, ma’am,
I miss the mongrel plentitude of American English, its fall-guy,
     rat-terrier, dog-pound neologisms, the bomb of it all,
the rushing River Jordan backwoods mutability of it, the low-rider,
     boom-box cruise of it, from New Joisey to Ha-wah-ya
with its sly dog, malasada-scarfing beach blanket lingo
     to the ubiquitous Valley Girl’s like-like stuttering,
shopaholic rant. I miss its quotidian beauty, its querulous
     back-biting righteous indignation, its preening rotgut
flag-waving cowardice. Suffering Succotash, sputters
     Sylvester the Cat, sine die, say the pork-bellied legislators
of the swamps and plains. I miss all those guys, their Tweety-bird
     resilience, their Doris Day optimism, the candid unguent
of utter unhappiness on every channel, the midnight televangelist
     euphoric stew, the junk mail, voice mail vernacular.
On every boulevard and rue I miss the Tarzan cry of Johnny
     Weismueller, Johnny Cash, Johnny B. Goode,
and all the smart-talking, gum-snapping hard-girl dialogue,
     finger-popping x-rated street talk, sports babble,
Cheetoes, Cheerios, chili dog diatribes. Yeah, I miss them all,
     sitting here on my sidewalk throne sipping champagne
verses lined up like hearses, metaphors juking, nouns zipping
     in my head like Corvettes on Dexedrine, French verbs
slitting my throat, yearning for James Dean to jump my curb.

—Barbara Hamby

I’m a big fan of poems that are odes to America—or any place, really—even if the place they evoke is much more complicated and sometimes harsher than we’d like to admit. I confess that I am drawn to this poem for its imagery but also for its list of all the things one misses while living in another country (and in particular, France); in my eight months in France I felt the same draw, for the things which I hated the most (see: “the pork-bellied legislators” et al) were also the things I missed the most. I missed watching men with evangelical-high big hair on late night tv and I missed the cadence I used to hear in my own language on a daily basis. America and its American English, like this poem, has a real voice to it.

This poem is indeed included in the chapter on “voice” in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing, a book which I am teaching in my Introduction to Creative Writing class. I think it was an excellent pick for the chapter, though I did not assign it. I’d like to think of Barbara Hamby reading this at a poetry slam and letting the rhythm and sound of all of these words carry her right into the unpredictable night—in America.

-R

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