Measured Extravagance

03 December 2003 - 11:47 p.m.

December Ampersand Topic:

On the one hand, there's you, and on the other hand, there's America. It's bigger than you are. So you try and make sense of it. You try to figure it out - something which it resists. It's big enough, and contains enough contradictions, that it is perfectly happy not to be figured out.

(This quote from Neil Gaiman's essay "How Dare You?" can be interpreted any way you like.)

On the one hand. . .

The weekend before Thanksgiving,
my mother tries risotto for the first time
in Berea, Kentucky's best-known restaurant.
She likes it. I ask for the wine list
but the county is dry,
but the sauce for my steak
is "a burgundy-sage demi-glace."
As we nibble at the spoon bread,
chatting in our usual chaos
of Taiwanese and English,
the waiter (whose badge reads "Marion, Ohio")
asks with courteous curiosity,
Do you speak French?
I thought I heard you say in there
something like
je t'aime.
It reminds me of my sister-in-law
listening to me speak to my mother
on the way home from my father's funeral -
it sounded like French to her ears as well.
And yet, when I'm speaking actual French,
my accent's so dreadful - one teacher, giving up,
proclaimed, "We'll just pretend you're from Provence."
There's a deli in Nashville. It's called Provence.
I sometimes cook up stories there, all in English.

On the other hand. . .

You can sometimes pick them out, the people who are going
to flood you with details about their foreign daughter-in-law
right after you answer the "Where are your parents from?"
that inevitably follows "I was born in Texas"
because it doesn't matter
that you've lived all your life here
or your honors degree is in English lit
or that you can write a sexy villanelle
or that you've salvaged a house
as old as their grandparents
or that you've sung in Latin and German and Russian
or that you've ridden pillion on the back of a Kaw
all the way from Nashville to Austin,
admiring those Texas primroses.

It is true that when you forget to bring your fork,
you've improvised chopsticks out of a pair of brushes,
and you do store your jewelry in those tiny red purses
with the gold embroidery and white silk lining
and that you like dried squid and ginger candy

but people like those, particularly when they insist,
"Say something in Taiwanese. Oh come on, say it,"
they make you want
to clobber them over the head
with a plank from the Mayflower
or the chip on your shoulder
as big as Plymouth Rock.
Something, anything
to reshape their eyes.

Longer Than Tennessee

Sometimes it's a way
to describe a slip of the knife
or a slip sliding past the hem
or not being able to slip away from a meeting:
That gash was longer than Tennessee!
That lace could have curtained all of Tennessee!
That goddamned speech was longer than Tennessee!

Sometimes it's the night ahead -
too shallow to soak up all of your regrets
yet so, so long you don't know how you'll make it to shore

except that you've somehow done it before,
stumbling past sad mountains
and make-believe grace
and poison-laced songs
and heavy but hollow prayers

to return to that grove
where light slips in between the leaves,
where the day is a rustle of silver,
whispering, shining,
its dazzling train of possibilities
stretching out longer than Tennessee.

- pld

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