How We Practiced Being American

It had to do with television, with radio,
listening to newscasts and sitcoms,
press briefings and Westerns,
it had to do with unrolling our r’s,
drawing out the vowels, as in “Mah fella Amurricuns”
whenever LBJ came on to tell us how we were,
had to do with Cry-y-y, and big girls didn’t,
or mouthing “pardner” and “honeypie”
like Johnny Yuma in a Rebel drawl.
We tried to soften our harsh gutturals,
the back-of-the-throat Armenian raspings,
it was all up front now, in the lips,
the way the tongue lounged tenderly
against the palate, touched it like a lover,
Marilyn Monroe at her sinewy best,
Elvis merging one luscious word into another.
I’ll have the fry-ys my sister said
at the fast-food counter, lucky
to have gotten whatever she did.
Ah thankya, teach, I said to Mrs. Schaeffer
who couldn’t have been less charmed,
failing me in spelling and social studies.
It had to do with the newness of it,
a history that was someone else’s, beginning
only where the Atlantic lapped at the West.
“Four score…” we recited, trying not to think
of our own dark past some eighty years ago
at the edge of an abyss, “Saratoga,” we said,
“Oklahoma,” making sure the o’s were long, long, long,
as long as it took “to form a more perfect union,”
something for all of us if we could just
say it right, find the key for the tongue,
a diphthong into the heart of it
where we could all be indivisible,
eliding easily one into another.