With school cranking up again, I thought of this poem by Gregory Djanikian, his own story as a young immigrant singing quintessential American songs in his grade school choir. He knows nothing yet about this country, but he is wide open, taking in the songs and trying to attach them to his own limited experience. It isn’t America so much that he loves at this point. It’s the newness, the word and the stories that feel exotic to him.
I imagine that confusion of countries. He is old enough to have memories of Egypt, yet so young, still, that they become blurred with his new images. So funny, the stanza with his great-uncles and grandfathers “stunned from their graves in the Turkish interior” transplanted to the plains of America!
And so he falls in love with Linda Deemer. He’s young, it’s puppy love, it’s his imagination, but it’s enough to anchor him to this strange land.
What is more important than imagination? With the imagination, it’s possible to put ourselves inside the joys and pains of another person, like this young immigrant boy, to make them real to us. Isn’t it the source of our connections, our ability to love? I think it is the failure of imagination that makes us imagine other people as objects, so we can commit atrocities.
Gregory Djanikian was born in Alexandria, Egypt. He now lives in Philadelphia, where he directs the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania.
In the Elementary School Choir
I had never seen a cornfield in my life,
I had never been to Oklahoma,
But I was singing as loud as anyone,
“Oh what a beautiful morning. . . . The corn
Is as high as an elephant’s eye,”
Though I knew something about elephants, I thought,
Coming from the same continent as they did,
And they being more like camels than anything else.
And when we sang from Meet Me in St. Louis,
“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley,”
I remembered the ride from Ramleh Station
In the heart of Alexandria
All the way to Roushdy where my grandmother lived,
The autos on the roadways vying
With mule carts and bicycles,
The Mediterranean half a mile off on the left,
The air smelling sharply of diesel and salt.
It was a problem which had dogged me
For a few years, this confusion of places.
And when in 5th grade geography I had pronounced
“Des Moines” as though it were a village in France,
Mr. Kephart led me to the map on the front wall,
And so I’d know where I was,
Pressed my forehead squarely against Iowa.
Des Moines, he’d said. Rhymes with coins.
Now we were singing “zippidy-doo-dah, zippidy-ay,”
And every song we’d sung had in it
Either sun or bluebirds, fair weather
Or fancy fringe, O beautiful America!
And one tier below me,
There was Linda Deemer with her amber waves
And lovely fruited plains,
And she was part of America too
Along with sun and spacious sky
Though untouchable, and as distant
As purple mountains of majesty.
“This is my country,” we sang,
And a few years ago there would have been
A scent of figs in the air, mangoes,
And someone playing the oud along a clear stream.
But now it was “My country ‘tis of thee”
And I sang it out with all my heart
And now with Linda Deemer in mind.
“Land where my fathers died,” I bellowed,
And it was not too hard to imagine
A host of my great-uncles and -grandfathers
Stunned from their graves in the Turkish interior
And finding themselves suddenly
On a rock among maize and poultry
And Squanto shaking their hands.
How could anyone not think America
Was exotic when it had Massachusetts
And the long tables of thanksgiving?
And how could it not be home
If it were the place where love first struck?
We had finished singing.
The sun was shining through large windows
On the beatified faces of all
Who had sung well and with feeling.
We were ready to file out and march back
To our room where Mr. Kephart was waiting.
Already Linda Deemer had disappeared
Into the high society of the hallway.
One day I was going to tell her something.
Des Moines, I was saying to myself,
Baton Rouge. Terre Haute. Boise.
— Gregory Djanikian, from “Falling Deeply into America,” Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1989.