The Yankees needed ditch diggers,

sandhogs, fodder for the wild

hunger of their mills and sent out

invitations with no RSVPs.

My people came then, dimly knowing

they had to cut away the baggage

of the selves they brought with them.

The cutting was strangely easy

as they gaped at clerks smoothing

harsh corners off their names,

docking final vowels like tails.

Distance helped the cutting too–

the ocean roiling behind them

with all that danger and disease,

the old country already swallowed

by the horizon’s bulging lead.

At most it was only a village,

a hut, the midden out back

all frozen in the endless winter

of the past. The new language

squeezed more color from that past,

making it shameful–starving winds

and nothingness. They tugged

the new words into their mouths

like odd-shaped and exotic food,

curiously spiced, hard to choke down.

The rolled its oddness on their

tongues, tried to suck the sense

from it and the new ran together

with the old like milk in coffee,

the color changing until the old

was mostly gone, half their lives

dropping off the edge of the world.

***

I had my citizenship interview last week and the officer who interviewed me was a German/Polish immigrant. He told me that his and his sister’s last names are different from his older brother and father’s because when they immigrated from Germany to Poland, their surnames were changed. He and his sister were born in Poland after the change. He explained that the original spelling was harsh sounding so they changed out a vowel to make it sound more pleasant and smoother. To make it more Anglo-friendly, I ventured. He replied that was it exactly. So there we were, American and American-to-be, sharing a snippet of immigrant life. He also shared pictures of his family’s doberman with me. It was a good day.

Poetry Ptuesday: Becoming American by Vern Rutsala
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