1134: Americans by Katie Peterson

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1134: Americans by Katie Peterson


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Watching a World Cup game, a man next to me at the bar dragged what he perceived as acting by the opposing team. He made a generalizing remark: “There go the Italians again, flopping around.” The Spaniards. The Greeks. The Swedes. Whenever I hear a person refer to people by their geographic or cultural or national association, I wince. In doing so, we falsely implicate everything from intelligence levels to physical appearances. This strikes me as crude, reductive, unintentionally demeaning.

Just denoting people by their citizenship calls forth what are supposed to be intrinsic characteristics of a people that all in that region do not share. It renders static what we know of human beings, that they are not a monolith, but a composite of differences and shared traits, customs, and rituals. What cultural attributes once defined a group eventually calcify and play into unintended stereotypes.

Yet, at the same time, I do not want to uproot people. Where is the line? Today’s poem hints at the individuality of people facing shared challenges, which may ultimately tie us together, more than our borders.

by Katie Peterson

He lost his job. He didn’t know what to say
to his family so he sat in the train station all afternoon
and told each person waiting a different story.
She made a quilt for her baby. She had to sell it for money
and since it worked the first time, she did it again.
Now she sells everything she makes to other people.
He didn’t have enough to bring his parents over 
so they died in a place where he could never visit them.
He had to marry her to keep her here.
Rain, snow on the monument to the boats
that settled the fishing town on the northern spit 
in a state most of us will never visit.
More snow on that pass where people died
when they had had to eat pine branches, then each other.
Enough wind to make the government warn us.
She grew up on that land but never owned it.
He owned it years ago and lost it in a game.
She didn’t grow up here but she planted
poppies, wild iris, sun cups, lupines. Those native
plants you see, she planted them all,
seeds she ordered from another state.
She had an idea the soil could be reminded,
not that soil has ever lived for pleasure,
she thought she could make an agreement with it.
He couldn’t help his children with their homework.
She never had children, only ideas.
Together the two of them built this house,
and together let it rot in rain and weather.
Were they taking their loneliness out on each other?
Did they simply not understand abundance, 
the way in which it asks you to quit asking?
He loved his partner’s dogs more than his partner,
and they were very beautiful, who could blame him, 
a silver gray sheepdog and a spotted heeler.
It made her so mad when he went to that church,
she quit getting up in the morning. 
She decided that her world should just be night.
When they were in public, he said, only speak English.
The boats they used to own ended up firewood.
What beautiful fires our houses made that winter.

"Americans" by Katie Peterson from FOG AND SMOKE by Katie Peterson. Copyright © 2024 by Katie Peterson. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All Rights Reserved.