Kenneth Koch (27 February 1925 – 6 July 2002 / Ohio / United States)
Variations At Home And Abroad
It takes a lot of a person's life
To be French, or English, or American
Or Italian. And to be at any age. To live at any certain time.
The Polish-born resident of Manhattan is not merely a representative of
And neither is this Sicilian fisherman stringing his bait
Or to be any gender, born where or when
Betty holding a big plate
Karen crossing her post-World War Two legs
And smiling across the table
These three Italian boys age about twenty gesturing and talking
And laughing after they get off the train
Seem fifty percent Italian and the rest percent just plain
O mystery of growing up! O history of going to school!
O lovers O enchantments!
The subject is not over because the photograph is over.
The photographer sits down. Murnau makes the movie.
Everything is a little bit off, but has a nationality.
The oysters won't help the refugees off the boats,
Only other human creatures will. The phone rings and the Albanian
nationalist sits down.
When he gets up he hasn't become a Russian émigré or a German circus
A woman is carrying a basket—a beautiful sight! She is in and of
The uniformed Malay policeman sniffs the beer barrel that the brothers of
Ludwig are bringing close to him.
All humanity likes to get drunk! Are differences then all on the surface?
But even every surface gets hot
In the sun. It may be that the surface is where we are all alike!
But man and woman show that this isn't true.
We will get by, though. The train is puffing at the station
But the station isn't puffing at the train. This difference allows for a sense
As when people feel really glad to have cats and dogs
And some even a few mice in the chimney. We are not alone
In the universe, and the diversity causes comfort as well as difficulty.
To be Italian takes at least half the day. To be Chinese seven-eighths of it.
Only at evening when Chang Ho, repast over, sits down to smoke
Is he exclusively human, in the way the train is exclusively itself when it is
But that's to say it wrongly. His being human is also his being seven-eighths
Falling in love one may get, say, twenty percent back
Toward universality, though that is probably all. Then when love's gone
One's Nigerianness increases, or one's quality of being of Nepal.
An American may start out wishing
To be everybody or that everybody were the same
Which makes him or her at least eighty percent American. Dixit Charles
Peguy, circa 1912,
"The good Lord created the French so that certain aspects of His creation
Wouldn't go unnoticed." Like the taste of wheat, sirrah! Or the Japanese.
So that someplace on earth there would be people who were
Writing haiku. But think of the human body with its arms
Its nose, its eyes, its brain often subject to alarms
Think how much energy, work, and time have gone into it,
To give us such a variegated kind of humanity!
It takes fifteen seconds this morning to be a man,
Twenty to be an old one, four to be an American,
Two to be a college graduate and four or five hours to write.
And what's more, I love you! half of every hour for weeks or months for
Nine hundred seconds to be an admirer of Italian Renaissance painting,
Sixteen hours to be someone awake.
One is recognizably American, male, and of a certain generation. Nothing
takes these markers away.
Even if I live in Indonesia as a native in a hut, someone coming through
Will certainly gasp and say Why you're an American!
My optimism, my openness, my lack of a sense of history,
My distinctive facial muscles ready to look angry or sad or sympathetic
In a moment and not quite know where to go from there;
My assuming that anything is possible, my deep sense of superiority
And inferiority at the same time; my lack of culture,
Except for the bookish kind; my way of acting with the dog, come here
Spotty! God damn!
All these and hundreds more declare me to be what I am.
It's burdensome but also inevitable. I think so.
Expatriates have had some success with the plastic surgery
Of absence and departure. But it is never absolute. And then they must bear
the new identity as well.
Irish or Russian, the individuality in them is often mistaken for nationality.
The Russian finding a soul in the army officer, the Irishman finding in him
someone with whom he can drink.
Consider the Volga boatman? One can only guess
But probably about ninety percent Russian, eighty percent man, and thirty
percent boatman, Russian, man, and boatman,
A good person for the job, a Russian man of the river.
This dog is two-fifths wolf and less than one-thousandth a husband or
Dogs resist nationality by being breeds. This one is simply Alsatian.
Though he may father forth a puppy
Who seems totally something else if for example he (the Alsatian) is attracted
To a poodle with powerful DNA. The puppy runs up to the Italian boys
Thinking it would be fun to take it to Taormina
Where they work in the hotel and to teach it tricks.
A Frenchwoman marvels at this scene.
The woman bends down to the dog and speaks to it in French.
This is hopeful and funny. To the dog all human languages are a perfumed
He wags and rises on his back legs. One Italian boy praises him, "Bravo!
Underneath there is the rumble of the metro train. The boy looks at the
Life offers them these entangling moments as—who?—on a bicycle goes
It is a Congolese with the savannah on his shoulders
And the sky in his heart, but his words as he passes are in French—
"Bonjour, m'sieu dames," and goes speeding off with his identity,
His Congolese, millennial selfhood unchanging and changing place.
Comments about this poem (Variations At Home And Abroad by Kenneth Koch )
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