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Reflections on the 4th of July

July 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: an encore look at some Fourth of July

reflections from poet Gregory Djanikian. His directs the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania. His fifth and most recent volume of poetry is “So I Will Till the Ground.”

GREGORY DJANIKIAN, poet: My name is Gregory Djanikian, and I was born

in Alexandria, Egypt, of Armenian parentage, and came to this country when I was 8 years old. I spent my boyhood in a small town in Pennsylvania, Williamsport, home of the little league, and my acculturation to this country occurred in some ways on the baseball fields of that town.

Now I live near Philadelphia, a city which saw the founding of this nation. I would like to read a poem called “Immigrant Picnic,” which describes a July Fourth get-together of my immigrant family, who, with American families across the nation, contribute to the celebration of independence.

The poem also describes how we might contribute to that great melting pot that is the English language, that, for many of us who have come from different countries, our difficulties with American idioms often lead to unexpected syntactic constructions and surprising turns of phrase which enrich the language and by which we all are enriched.

“Immigrant Picnic.”

It’s the Fourth of July. The flags are painting the town, the plastic forks and knives are laid out like a parade. And I’m grilling. I have got my apron. I have got potato salad, macaroni, relish. I have got a hat shaped like the state of Pennsylvania.

I ask my father what’s his pleasure and he says, “Hot dog, medium rare,” and then, “Hamburger, sure, what’s the big difference,” as if he’s really asking. I put on hamburgers and hot dogs, slice up the sour pickles and Bermudas, uncap the condiments. The paper napkins are fluttering away like lost messages.

“You’re running around,” my mother says, “like a chicken with its head loose.”

“Ma,” I say, “you mean cut off, loose and cut off being as far apart as, say, son and daughter.”

She gives me a quizzical look as though I have been caught in some impropriety.

“I love you and your sister just the same,” she says.

“Sure,” my grandmother pipes in, “you’re both our children, so why worry?”

That’s not the point I begin telling them, and I’m comparing words to fish now, like the ones in the sea at Port Said, or like birds among the date palms by the Nile, unrepentantly elusive, wild.

“Sonia,” my father says to my mother, “what the hell is he talking about?” “He’s on a ball,” my mother says. “That’s roll!” I say, throwing up my hands, “as in hot dog, hamburger, dinner roll.”

“And what about roll out the barrels?” my mother asks.

And my father claps his hands, “Why sure,” he says, “let’s have some fun,” and launches into a polka, twirling my mother around and around like the happiest top.

And my uncle is shaking his head, saying, “You could grow nuts listening to us,” and I’m thinking of pistachios in the Sinai burgeoning without end, pecans in the South, the jumbled flavor of them suddenly in my mouth, wordless, confusing, crowding out everything else.