from Americans in Italy

David Kirby

copyright ©2003 David Kirby

      The three things Americans visiting Italy worry about most
are (1) being cheated, (2) being made to eat something
      they don’t like, and (3) being cheated in the course
of being made to eat something they don’t like.
      To these people, I say: Americans, do not worry.
Italians will not cheat you. Dishonesty requires calculation,
      and Italians are no fonder of calculation than we are.
As for the food, remember that you are in a restaurant,
      for Christ’s sake, and therefore it is highly unlikely

      that your handsome, attentive waiter will bring you
a bunch of boiled fish heads, much less a bowl of hairspray soup
      or a slice of tobacco pie topped with booger ice cream.
Indeed, you have already been both cheated and made to eat
      bad food in your so-called Italian restaurant in Dearborn
or Terre Haute where the specialty is limp manicotti
      stuffed with cat food and welded to an oversized ashtray
with industrial-strength tomato sauce; therefore be not
      like the scholar in The Charterhouse of Parma

      who never pays for the smellest trifle without looking up
its price in Mrs. Starke’s Travels, where it states how much
      an Englishman should pay for a turkey, an apple,
a glass of milk, and so on, but eat, drink, and spend freely,
      for tomorrow you will again be in Grand Rapids or Fort Wayne.
As Cosimo strolled his corridor, he could glance out from time to time
      to see if three or four of the abovementioned Pazzi or Albizi
were gathering to discuss something that almost certainly
      would not have been a surprise birthday party for him.

Notes on the Poem

The whole world is thinking a lot about Americans right now, isn't it? Although the Poem of the Week choices are scheduled well in advance of their online publication dates, the timing of this excerpt from David Kirby's poem "Americans in Italy", from his collection The Ha-Ha, is uncannily appropriate. The Griffin Poetry Prize judges cheerfully itemized the lively subject matter of Kirby's poems when The Ha-Ha was shortlisted for the 2004 prize:
"Talk, talk, talk about travel, food, more food, art, architecture, Barbara, more Barbara, mother, nuns, Rotarians, Americans, more Americans, etc., little operas with recitative. The Ha-Ha is funny and sad, colloquial and learned, and full of wry self-observation and social profundities."
... and much of that, both content and tone, fills this one poem to the brim. Even in just this sampling, the poem is rich and full with characterization of the manner and foibles of Americans, at home and abroad, that teeters towards caricature - or does it, and to what purpose? As a literary device, caricature is defined as effects "used in descriptive writing and visual arts where particular aspects of a subject are exaggerated to create a silly or comic effect." (The full definition and examples are found here.) But is it a compression and exaggeration of attributes? Surely no real people could be this ridiculous ...? This particular praise for The Ha-Ha suggests its authentic American behaviour and argot:
"Many of the fast-paced narrative poems here are set in Italy, and this only heightens their distinctly American sound. The stream-of-consciousness and jazz-based rhythms of Kerouac and Ginsberg meet the surreal, philosophical musings of Wallace Stevens, with an occasional dose of cathartic confessionalism a la Robert Lowell."
Note that the judges' duly cited colloquial tone is used effectively to convey the poem narrator's exasperation, with a plosive and well-placed "for Christ's sake". So, again to reference the judges' citation: is that funny ... or sad?

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