What We Call a Mountain in the Valley, They Call a Hill on the Mountain

What We Call a Mountain in the Valley, They Call a Hill on the Mountain

Aren’t the rigors of traffic ample? Aren’t child-rearing
and the triumph of income over expenditure ambition

enough? Aren’t your hours already glutted with language
and image, with pundit and selfie? Why do you fidget

over your poem when ten minutes in a conjugal visit trailer
would be a project more fruitful, a venture more tactile

and lucid? Can you conjure a love that substantial, a lyric
more American than the one in the bed of the penitentiary

nestled between soybean fields? Would you be a witness
vigilant as the guard in a tower there? Are your visions exacting

as the sniper’s, your anxieties urgent as the fugitive’s?
Is your art more subversive than the coyote’s as he smuggles

the escaped, run-ragged, in tunnels to Albuquerque,
tunnels to Juarez and Gaza, by boatload to Palermo?

Can you manufacture a longing so hollow, a sorrow
gnawing dogged as the refugee’s when she’s cuffed

by the border patrol? Is your desire more ferocious
than the insurgent’s on the lam, your subject more global

than the drone’s as it stalks him, your insights penetrating
as the infrared of its targeting scope? Are your epiphanies

drastic as the bride’s when her wedding is detonated
in error, your regret so indelible, your angst as ineffable

as the corporal’s in his Humvee deployed to catalog
the corpses in their eveningwear? And if they are,

you’d offer us what? Some stanzas scolding
the combatants? Your verses memorializing

the incidental dead? Will your poem be inventive
as an IED? Will it be candid as a suicide vest?

Will it be twelve poems? Is it even in prose? And when
the corporal is discharged into his tenement home

where schoolboys are shot dead by their neighbors,
pedestrians billy-clubbed, tasered, and shot dead

by the law, you think there’s a poetry for that?
That you’ll write it concrete and specific? Will you

write what you know? Will you call it “Hip Hop
Sweatshop” or “Of the Different Progress of Opulence

in Different Nations” or “Lying in a Hammock
at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island,

Minnesota, Part 2”? Will you write it on a MacBook?
Will you write it in a Starbucks? Will it tell us

You have wasted your life? It’ll tell us what you know
and don’t know and more than we know? And if we don’t

comprehend it, do you believe someday we will?
That the poem will blossom before us some morning

like a green light at Daytona? Like a moonshot
into the bleachers? It’ll be earnest as bourbon, pervasive

as coal coke, final as ash in the urn? Will it loom
all granite and complicated, both lauding and mournful

as a monument on the national mall? And in the clarity
of its aftermath do you think we’ll call on you?

We’ll call on you to ride out of your garret on your bull
with a flower? Are you awaiting our signal?

If it resembles indifference, don’t misunderstand us.
We’re working a double. We’re stuck on the line

or jammed up in traffic or running for cover.
We’re dodging the shift boss, the loan officer,

dodging the parole officer, the incoming ordnance,
hoping for home by seven to coax a forkful of spinach

into the kid and the kid into bed. We could use a ceasefire,
a sick day, a debt holiday. We could use an airlift

and an aid worker, an ACLU lawyer and a UN envoy,
and as soon as the cops withdraw to their barracks,

soon as the militants retire to their prayers, the bankers
finish foreclosing, soon as our oncologists unveil

their brutal portraits, soon as the check clears
and the guns are emptied of their daily refrain,

then, poet, then come sing us your tortured song.

Jaswinder Bolina is author of the poetry collections Carrier Wave (2006) and Phantom Camera (2012) and the chapbook The Tallest Building in America (2014). His poems have appeared in numerous U.S. and international literary journals and in The Best American Poetry series. His essays on language, race, class, and culture have appeared at The Poetry Foundation dot org, The Huffington Post, The State, The Writer, and in a number of anthologies including Poets on Teaching (University of Iowa Press 2011), Language: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press 2013), and in the forthcoming 14th edition of The Norton Reader. Bolina is a professor of poetry in the MFA Program at the University of Miami.


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