This was a year when I couldn't get away from the idea of America. Every time I turned around, something rushed at me, forcing me to consider whether, for however long we as a nation have been traveling, we've been covering real ground or merely going in circles.
There's the private America, the one each of us lives inside of alone—the one whose silent, solitary spaces are characterized by the particular loneliness of, say, surfing the internet late at night for evidence of old rivals, former loves, even evidence of oneself. Dorothea Lasky's newest collection of poems, Rome, does such a perfect job of scouring this hungry, lonely version of America, and bearing witness to the vacuous pain lurking in the crevices of even a happy life.
Rome doesn't truck in overt political speech, but it very obliquely answers some of the questions public America is asking. Questions about how, if we love ourselves so much, we can treat one another with such hateful adamancy. In a poem titled "Porn," Lasky nails the leaden recognition that comes from looking too long or too closely at any of the products of our 21st Century appetite for fabrications of reality—not just porn, but reality TV or even the versions of our own lives we've learned to stage for social media:
The title of the movie was Divorce Party
And throughout his big cock, her skinny thighs
Her friends shouted, nah girl, now you're free
But no she's not she's in a movie
And now I am crying
Because the man looks like[…]
Someone who darkened me
A million times over
A book like this consoles because it stands as proof that, yes, we are lonely; yes, we have been hurt; yes, memory hounds us. And yes, the culture we have made chips away at us. Even when we find a way to heal and grow back, our very own appetites urge the predator to start in on us again.
In contemplating the public America, I return again and again to Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, a collection of chastening poems that reckon with the dark conundrum of racism at America's core. Meditations upon victims of racial violence like Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson are interspersed with descriptions of something ever so slightly more benign, something we might call "disregard." Rankine writes, "The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone….At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?" Citizen urges us to look differently at the social "other," but more importantly it also asks us to look honestly and unflinchingly at our own capacity for hatred and ignorance, and at the fear that sets such feelings into motion.
I'm not sure any of us can know where America is heading. Sometimes I worry we're so close to arriving that little can be done to alter our course. But books like this give my pessimism pause. They say, this is who we are; this is what we feel; this is what we are guilty of. Sometimes that kind of fidelity to the truth feels like enough.
Tracy K. Smith won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. A professor of creative writing at Princeton, Smith is the author of The Body's Question, Duende, and Life on Mars. Her forthcoming memoir, Ordinary Light, will be published in March.