30 August 2005


Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

~ Claude McKay

William Maxwell "On 'America'":
For critic-spies trained in modern literature departments, "America" is an invitation to old or new formalisms. Lushly allusive, semantically knotty, imagistically dense, hooked on conceptual tension, the sonnet's refusal to liquidate iambic pentameter and other high modernist enemies nonetheless begs for high modernist interpretive protocols. The first seven lines, an unbalanced, nonconforming unit of quatrain and virtual tercet, reach from the Harlem Renaissance to the English Renaissance to revive the sonnet motif of the cruel-fair mistress. In McKay's game hands, this motif tropes international (and interracial?) intimacy as sadomasochistic vampirism, with the "tiger's tooth" of feminine America both sapping the breath and inflating the potency of an erect but ungendered lyric "I." Even the ostensibly anguished first line, feeding both gall and "bread" to the speaker, promises the final hydraulic equilibrium of the affair, its "vigor flow[ing] like tides" from America to her lover. McKay's imagery of troubled yet sustaining currents here dramatizes the traditional sonnet logic through which the cruel mistress fills out her victim, providing her lover with "effects...which, if distressing, are none the less manifestations of him" (Spiller 156; emphasis in original). The leading such effect in "America" is the speaker's astutely equivocal love for the hand that strangles and feeds him-or her. Anticipating Walter Benjamin's epigram on the proximity of civilization and barbarism, McKay's persona confesses affection for the nation's "cultured hell," where a body can learn that America's every document of grace, "vigor," and "bigness" is a document of thievery.

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