Poetry at Sangam



AMERICA, AMERICA by Nissar Ahmed

(Translated from the Kannada by Roopa Pai.)

(This poem is from a collection published in 1970, when the poet was a young man. The world has changed somewhat since then.)

America, America

Whenever they talk about your ‘sanskriti’
Singing its praises, raising it to the skies
My fingers itch to rip the suits and ties and skirts from your people
One by one, and expose them.
To raise from the bloodspills
Shove them in your face, and guffaw.

I see their faces—LincolnKennedyKing—
My words falter, I stutter, stop—
And press my palms together respectfully, tongue-tied.

Whenever you jerk off as you crush underfoot
CommunistsNazisOthers, amassing validation
Via Time and Life, you arrogant brute,
I gather my phlegm and spit at you
Draining my vodka as I shoot the breeze
With CastroDeGaulleHoChiMinhNasser.
over the sudden sharp stab
of the memory of ChinaPak swords,
I notice, extended towards me,
your 6000-mile-long hand of custodial friendship—
And shut up.

Whenever you fly the flag of American propriety
From atop the Empire State
I see instead your many epidemics—
And long to jeer, sneer, tell the world.
I wish I could turn Lady Liberty, who stands so proudly
Facing the world, her back to you,
So she can turn her gaze inwards, towards
Your true heart, your InnerCitySlumsHarlems—
Each time your people gift their children Tommy guns
on their birthdays, I dream of snatching them
From their little hands, flinging them
Swapping them
For Bibles and Gitas and Qurans—
Of irradiating your people’s
pale-as-the-sheet-they-slept-on faces
with the luminous wisdom of ancient sages

Of ironing out the frown-lines above Johnson’s knitted eyebrows
Of painting his lips
With Nehru’s rosy smile—

America, America
Whenever you brag about your power and glory
I yearn to twist your gaze
Towards Vietnam
The pulverizing of youthful ardour,
Quashed hopes, broken dreams,
Spineless governments packed with yes-men
The toiling-failing CIA, missiles
That fall to the ground no sooner than they are launched
The long list of hare-brained schemes
That presume (as it were) to scale the moon by ladder.
The debt of wheat and PL 480 and foreign affairs policy
Crush my hankering,
Gag me.

I swallow my taunts
Stop my tongue from lashing out
‘Can there be another nation like you?’
Instead, I sew my lips shut
And bow before you
You who are swallowing me whole,
Soundlessly, with the relentless, unvarying
Broadcasts of your superiority.

And each time I feel myself burn up with envy
At the abundance you flaunt in my face,
My country’s infernal poverty
And her fraught geography
Arrest my tongue—
And teach me a lesson
In restraint.