Poem of the Week

Something Broken in the United States Needs Fixing

Ahead of November 8, a poem by Alicia Ostriker prophetically captures the feeling in this national election.

U.S. presidential nominees Hillary Clinton (top) and Donald Trump speak at campaign rallies in a combination of file photo.
U.S. presidential nominees Hillary Clinton (top) and Donald Trump speak at campaign rallies in a combination of file photo. Reuters

Fix / Alicia Ostriker

The puzzled ones, the Americans, go through their lives
Buying what they are told to buy,
Pursuing their love affairs with the automobile,
Baseball and football, romance and beauty,

Enthusiastic as trained seals, going into debt, struggling--
True believers in liberty, and also security,
And of course sex—cheating on each other
For the most part only a little, mostly avoiding violence

Except at a vast blue distance, as between bombsight and earth,
Or on the violent screen, which they adore.
Those who are not Americans think Americans are happy
Because they are so filthy rich, but not so,

They are mostly puzzled and at a loss
As if someone pulled the floor out from under them,
They’d like to believe in God, or something, and they do try.

You can see it in their white faces at the supermarket and the gas station
--Not the immigrant faces, they know what they want,
Not the blacks, whose faces are hurt and proud—

The white faces, lipsticked, shaven, we do try
To keep smiling, for when we’re smiling, the whole world
Smiles with us, but we feel we’ve lost

That loving feeling.  Clouds ride by above us,
Rivers flow, toilets work, traffic lights work, barring floods, fires
And earthquakes, houses and streets appear stable,

So what is it, this moon-shaped blankness?
What the hell is it?  America is perplexed.
We would fix it if we knew what was broken.

From “No Heaven,” Pitt Poetry Series, 2005. Reprinted by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

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Something broken in the United States needs fixing but how to do that is perplexing. These increasingly discomfited stanzas published 11 years ago prophetically capture the feeling in this national election.

At the outset, Americans are seen moving through a dream of advertised consumer goods, cars and sports teams. As “true believers,” they naïvely trust in the solid coexistence of liberty and security. Now Hillary Clinton’s email flaps, alas, show that like vinegar and olive oil, liberty and security can form an unstable emulsion at best. “Nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville.

Sex is not loving and procreative, but rather “cheating on each other / For the most part only a little” – Donald J. Trump, after some vile “locker room talk” chortled upon embracing an actress he just met: “Melania said this was O.K.” When the poem was written, violence mediated by technology prevailed and now it is also immediately threatening and transmitted by innuendo, as in the appeals to “Second Amendment people.” Outsiders – “those who are not Americans” – wrongly perceive Americans as both wealthy and happy.

In stanza 5, the poem’s structural fulcrum, everything tilts: “They are mostly puzzled and at a loss / As if someone pulled the floor out from under them. / They’d like to believe in God, or something, and they do try.” “White faces” are paradoxically less sure of themselves than “immigrant faces” and “the blacks, whose faces are hurt and proud.”

The white faces reappear in stanza 7. In contrast to “they do try” in the previous stanza, now it’s “we do try.” The pronoun shift is startling – the reporter in the poem seemed to observe Americans from the outside but now she is inside, part of the rueful, “lipsticked, shaven” collective. An ambivalent soundtrack plays “Keep on Smilin’” and “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin.’” Everyday life seems fine except for exceptions, like natural disasters. The “moon-shaped” blankness perplexes – and the moon is a constant shape-shifter.

Alicia Ostriker.
J.P. Ostriker

Alicia Ostriker was born in 1937 in Brooklyn, New York. She has published 12 volumes of poetry as well as literary, biblical and feminist criticism and is the recipient of numerous awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Jewish Book Award.

*Musing: Could the shift from “they” to "we” have to do with the fact that the poet is Jewish?

* Bonus: Cheer up -- Louis Armstrong sings “When You’re Smilin’” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=

Louis Armstrong - When You're Smiling YouTube