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Melting Pot

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“Who are you to tell us how to live or why,
et cetera?”   No Man, of course, and not so tall   
as is the current fashion, nor smart enough
in the acceptable modern way, to enthrall

the crowd with stories of my life among
the savages where I was home and growing
baffled day by day, raging through the night
as if it were new music I made, groaing.

It came to me today at lunch, the sound
of women in the next booth, a voice like
Aunt Odile’s—whom I never knew well
nor did I like her, but not her spite

but her voice like home-grown fame, a touch
gravelly, a considerable groan itself, it seemed.
They spoke outmoded French around me, never
to me, except to taunt, I thought.   She leaned

above me, on those visits, speaking to Mother
in their private French, laughing.   A boy
surrounded by the sound of foreign tongues
knowing what wasn’t meant for him:   toy

temptations, suggestive coils of syllables.
I learned Latin, for Mass, and did love
its terrific laddered randomness:   
The Blessed hovering Virgin above

every station of a boy’s new path, hormonal
disharmonies, her praises sung into hundreds
the first Tuesday of every month: and yet
Latin could not expose such shreds

of glittering flesh as I found in French,
not like the living tongue whose tip twined
into an Uncle’s mustache as he leered
at the wrong Aunt and winked and a fine

distance crystallized loud there, then
gone. Crashing like German. Father’s family
spoke clear English among the bayous, boys
and girls of immigrants accentless happily

German through two wars, not counting
Civil.   I had the tongue for arithmetic
and spoke it beautifully.   I loved to count:   
precision’s a tempting career, clicking

into a future like an abacus ignoring
all those accents around.
I never learned the luck of any
but English, bland and bound.

But only yesterday I heard a word
the mechanic said in Czech
to his cousin—shop rag—clearly centered
in a welter of incomprehension, the wreck

of my car at their wretched mercies:   shop
rag.   And he wiped his hands and cried   
for me, shrugging like a cousin would.
I wrote a check. I drove home, or tried.

So does it count?   Am I a man of passion or
child of comprehension?   “Father of little lusts
driving myself home who thinks:   Buy some
sentiment, a little like love and she must

speak French this time. She longs
for you, you know; it isn’t just the money.
America loves you for yourself alone”
and so I go for professional help, honey-

blond hair and a disposition like
a happy banker, whose French for dear
sounds like dog; the cost of living
is going up, loving her here.

Bin Ramke, "The Melting Pot" from Massacre of Innocents. Copyright © 1995 by Bin Ramke.  Reprinted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
Source: Massacre of the Innocents: Poems by Bin Ramke (University of Iowa Press, 1995)
Melting Pot

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