America (after Allen Ginsburg)

Rita D. Costello

Issue 43 * Spring 2021

I, too, sing America – –Langston Hughes (after Walt Whitman), "Epilogue" (1926)

America why are your libraries full of tears? –Allen Ginsberg, "America" (1956)


America, I listen to 1920s/30s/40s folk music and recognize
all the same issues. You are still slaying black boys
and shorting wages.
But I wonder how you slaughtered the unions
then a source of hope for the future.
America, you're sharing a sheet with the KKK,
an old American institution. Don't get in bed with the militias as well.
America, you are killing your children with water and oil. At least
Medea had a purpose, a target for revenge, you're just
on a killing spree in Michigan. Never mind Chicago.
Economics and bullets are too similar to distinguish at times.
America, you treat your artists poorly and you
don't treat the poor at all.
America, I live in a state with the highest per capita new cases of syphilis, but
the state government says we can't investigate it
or teach about it. . . .
or talk about it. Even
in the 1920s you had syphilis and VD public health posters,
America. Maybe it would make you great again to warn
citizens about syphilis testing and treatment.
Some of the best are from 1936, it must have been a very fun year:
     The enemy is syphilis: Enlist employees in a campaign against it.
     70% are doomed if treatment of syphilis is delayed for 3 years
     Shame may be fatal, don't let false shame destroy health & happiness

America, she may look clean—but
You can't beat the Axis if you get VD
. It is your duty
to warn us. America,
I live in the Deep South and my brother
is afraid to visit me. He is safer in New York City.
America, when I lived in China I used to say they didn't realize Human
Resources were not renewable, and now
I say that of you, too.
America, my reserves are depleted.
America, I think Sis Cunningham's home recordings are lost
genius, accordion music too ballsy for a recording studio in the days of HUAC.
It's un-American, really, to fear art. But America,
the new Pussy Riot videos make me cringe and that means
they are vital and, America, we're more repressed than ever.
America, I'm frightened to say what I think out loud.
Often, I don't believe the things I say, but I don't believe in lying.
America, I have lived at your edges and keep thinking
I might fall off.
As a child, I could use math to believe
the falls wouldn't eat my island home in the Niagara
River for a thousand years, but now I live in Louisiana
where the gulf might swallow my home any day now.
America this is quite serious. What will you do
with the people you reject? Send brown people south
and the rainbow west? Have you thought yet
how you will reproduce without women?
America, I think the word great means big, but you're growing smaller every day.
America, you know you can't be a giant and kill the intellectuals at the same time, right?
America, if our new leader realizes you're a woman, he is going to grab you
by the pussy and stick his tongue down your throat.
When you're a star, they let you do it.
America, you are a star.


January 2017
written on the occasion of
Donald Trump's inauguration


Note on sources used:

Italics for lines or phrases in this poem denote quotes and close paraphrases; in order they are: the first one is Bob Claiborne's song "No. 1 Stooge" (c. 1948) before the line break and a 1946 quote from Congressman John Rankin—co-founder of the House Un-American Activities Committee—after the line break; the indented syphilis poster quotes are all circa 1936 and can be found in the LOC database; the one that is not indented is circa 1940 and can be found on the NIH website; a line from Ginsberg's poem "America"; Donald Trump (Access Hollywood videotape hot mic from 2005).