What constitutes history when you’re seeing it on the smaller, personal scale is a question I’ve returned to in my poetry several times. Since I wrote this poem, there has of course been a single defining event for Americans of my generation. As they usually are, it was a tragic one.
Read no history: nothing but biography,
for that is life without theory. — Benjamin Disraeli
We’ve tried to teach you
That history is really memory in context,
Not the echo of the loudest gun.
Hard when our place in it is more a non-place.
When your teacher sent you home last week
Assigned to find out where I was when Kennedy died,
All I could tell you was that I’d asked this, too,
And your grandparents had remembered
To the second, to the gesture,
But it happened before I was born.
You and I are really of one generation,
Without any binding event,
No great war, no small step to unite us,
Nothing for our children and future children
To quiz us about.
We’ve tried to give you the things we know:
Wallace Stevens, lemon verbena, “Red Barchetta,”
Canada geese in wedges of black and white.
We called you Lorelei without considering the weight of the name,
Or that your hair would be redder than mine.
We showed you how to make Sauce Piquant,
Taught you to catch walleyes
From the outboard dock on Lac Qui Parle.
These things you’ll carry with you;
Do they count as history?
Maybe we should be giving you your pre-history,
Things that belong to you, even if you don’t know them:
Your parents naked by Lake Winnibigoshish,
Skin washed green by light filtered through elm leaves;
Your father slipping bent-kneed under the water,
Hauling up a moss-slimy rock
So your mother could see what had been tickling her feet.
We drove back during the dry spell that August,
Three months before we could see you.
He floated in three feet of mud-thick water,
Back flexed like a slice of oval or ellipse,
Belly arched to match your shape in mine,
So you looked alike even before you were born.
(photo: public domain)