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Making Up America

America is America because it fills the space of America, because the space that is America fills it.

America is history searching for ways and places to happen, time but a trick (like willing suspension of disbelief) to keep everything from happening at once. At the center of America, at its heart, there is no time: buffalo graze the flatlands of the shopping malls, Plains Indians withdraw wampum from Money Marts. You must belive this.

America is written in the present tense, first person. It remains a complex fate, being American. We still make war on solitude. America is an island, ship and sea all in one. We emerge from the cocoon of America into the idea of America, a road unfolding beneath these oak trees and pecans towards pure desert and mountains blue now in the distance, to the inevitable, punctuating sea.

On the other side of the sea, on the other shore of the road, people stand watching with their curious accents.

Someone will go away from you and come back again, and that is America. A voice will tell you in the night, You do not understand me; and that is America.

Crickets bleat in the grass, in bushes and the cracks of houses and beneath counters.

Our minds repeat the landscape: New England peaks and seacoast, western prairies, the dirt backroads of Mississippi, moon-shaped New Orleans, erect, posturing Dallas. And always human behavior is a function of that landscape, an expression of free land available, of borders, frontiers.

You are leaving, and as you walk slowly away, America hurtles past behind you.

At first Americans still faced England, the frontier at their back (back country, backwoodsman), a boundary between two countries. But with the shifting of the frontiers, words are also shifted. Frontier settlement suggested at once a certain tenuousness and tenacity. And as demarcation between settlement and outland blurred ever further, frontier increasingly took on symbolic weight: a zone where "savagery" and "civilization" carried on parallel lives.

To hardly know America is to know it well.

Where in this vast country is stored the silence they, we, the country, have supplanted? We listen at the world's door now and hear only its silence – while America fills with noise, a wide-mouthed jar in the rain.

A man walks alone in the twilight, innocent of history. That man is America. A woman waits, without words, and she is America.

He or she will go away and come back again. He or she will say, You do not understand me.

See how he tips his hat and walks off into history, smiling.

See how she waits then in that far county, unused words gathering like regrets, how she sinks into them and taps on the side of the wooden tub: America.


First published in North Dakota Quarterly (Fall 1993).


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