America, I used to sit in my bedroom in the suburbs in high school listening to Allen Ginsberg’s “America” set to “Closing Time” by Tom Waits. I listened over and over as the music swelled and I felt an uprising in my chest, America. Do you know how lonely it is to feel an uprising in your chest in the suburbs, America? This was my poetry. It was the late 90s and the start of a new millennium—we didn’t want to hear any female voices yet, we weren’t uncovering the roots of our devastation. America, I am grown up now, cooking a 1950s recipe for Mexican Chicken, can you imagine how truly Mexican that recipe could be? America, I barely speak Spanish. America, I thought my heritage was Irish but it’s actually Scottish. America, white people in my generation don’t know a thing about their heritage but love to claim whatever could be theirs. America, I thought I was Russian-Romanian but my people are from Warsaw. We’re from a place near Loch Lomond, a place close to home. America, do you know that Poland tried to erase its devastation of its own Jews? America, I am troubled, and so are you. America, I had been in college for two months when the first black president was elected. Everyone ran drunken screaming happy through the streets. America, I used to call myself a-political, can you imagine? America, I was on a school trip in France when Bush declared war. It was the middle of the night in Paris, we were 12 year-old kids, we woke up to watch the speech on TV. France didn’t want to get involved in this mess, America. Can you blame them? It was confusing for us. We were 12 year-old kids watching our country declare war, far away from our families in America. But then we realized this meant the airports might close; we might not be able to get back home to you, America. That was confusing for us. We didn’t know how to feel about that, America. There were rumblings before we left for France. Most families didn’t let their kids go, America, but not my parents. My parents weren’t afraid, America, they wanted me to experience Real Culture, and Real Culture, America, always skirts the edge of danger.
America, the whole idea of war didn’t seem like a very good idea. It wasn’t the best idea you’d ever had, America, but it is the idea you always seem most famous for.
America, the first bar I ever went to underage was McSorley’s. I was 18, they served only “light and dark beer,” I didn’t know which one I liked or how to order, it was Valentine’s Day in the East Village, I was sitting in McSorley’s, this formerly “Men Only” pub, do you know what that meant to me, America? To be sitting in McSorley’s when outside it was indeed New York and beautifully snowing? America, I bought my copy of A Coney Island of the Mind from a bookseller hidden in a corner of Boston. I read “I Am Waiting” sitting on a bench next to a homeless man while a white man dressed in Revolutionary garb led a tour of schoolchildren through the city. America, my favorite Girl Doll was Molly. She had long brown hair and glasses. She read books and she looked like me. My grandmother made us matching smock dresses. America, do you know how much cigarettes cost these days? Do you know there are people my age who can afford to feed themselves but never bother learning to cook? What would you say about this, America? America, I have lived in San Francisco, do you know what your children live like on those streets? Do you know how many still seek in California the American Dream? The American Dream in California is a multi-million dollar apartment with flimsy walls, America, it’s a shared front lawn the size of a stamp filled with brands of imported cactus.
America, I was born in the South and raised in New England, don’t know where I should be.
Naomi Washer is the author of Phantoms (dancing girl press, 2019) and the translator from the Spanish of Sebastián Jiménez Galindo’s Experimental Gardening Manual: create your own habitat in thirty-something simple steps(Toad Press, 2019). Other work has appeared in Court Green, Pithead Chapel, Asymptote, Sundog Lit, Split Lip Magazine, and other journals. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies from Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, Studio Faire and Chateau d’Orquevaux in France, and Columbia College Chicago where she earned her MFA in Nonfiction. In 2019, she was named one of 30 Writers to Watch by The Guild Literary Complex. She lives in Chicago where she is the editor and publisher of Ghost Proposal.