‘God Bless America’ Water

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

–Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Today, over at Pith, there’s a photo of two bottles–one is an unopened bottle of “God Bless America” water and the other is a bottle full of dirt from the Arizona-Mexico border.  I love this photo so much that I’m not sure words can express it.  I would hang a copy in my office just to have something to ponder on slow days, if I could, because, to me, it pretty much sums up the border debate.

Here you have these two things–water and dirt–which have great symbolic weight, but the kind of symbolic weight that tends to resist easy politics.  We, ourselves, are mostly water.  We might say that, for most humans, water is the cradle of life and earth the cradle of death.  Though, of course, we might tell stories that suggest just the opposite.  What water and dirt mean varies from culture to culture, but seemingly all cultures share a deep belief that they mean something.

So, here you have these items, with deep, resonant meanings, bottled up and labeled–in order to give them meaning.  It’s like seeing someone trying to put a feather boa on a peacock.  Do you not see what is in your hands?  Do you not feel what’s beneath you?  Like Stevens asks, do you not see the blackbird about your feet?

And I’m starting to feel the exact same way about the American population.  Like figuring out what water and dirt “mean,” it’s impossible to nail down what being an American “means.”  But it’s also obvious that it means something to most folks.  And like bottling and labeling water to make it appropriately god-fearing and patriotic, or scooping up dirt and trying to insist it represents some obvious border between Here and There, saying “Here’s a wall we built, here’s a sort we did, and now everyone on this side of the wall is safely ‘us’ and everybody outside the wall is safely not,” seems laughable.

I don’t know how else to explain it except to say that it reminds me of the imaginary golden bird that distracts the thin men of Haddam from what’s real around them.

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16 thoughts on “‘God Bless America’ Water

  1. I know there is some other symbolism that has to do with the need to MIX those substances in order to have growth, but I’m too busy laughing at his letter.

  2. Yeah, but what if that’s not really why were the men of Haddam were thin? I’ve been to Haddam, CT. The men of Haddam are thin because there is fuck-all to do and no dreams to be had. There used to be a beaver trade, and then there was a fishing industry, and then there used to be the granite quarries and the looms of the Industrial Revolution. And then, one by one, in endless procession, all the things that they used to do moved out or dried up or just ceased to be relevant. The universities went up the road to Middletown and New Haven and Hartford where smug Wallace Stevens lived, bless him and his daily meanders through the manicured grounds of Elizabeth Park, blaming the unperceptive slobs in Haddam for their own economic misfortunes as a third of their town was set aside as a state forest and the main part of town was crystallized in time as a National Historic Preservation zone. Last I heard, they were trying to move in a prison just to balance the books. Pretty place, though.

    If you’re in the market for American metaphors, you could do worse than Haddam.

  3. I don’t know. Sometimes, it’s very easy to me to read a little smugness in Stevens. I don’t want to discount that. But sometimes, I feel like a lot of his poems are arguments for seeing something meaningful in the mundane–using ordinary folks from Haddam, looking at the stars at Tallapoosa, jars in Tennessee, etc.–because he was trying to make an argument for why it was okay for him to be the least poety poet ever.

    He could have decided, at any time, to be a poet, but always stuck with insurance. I always read that into his poems, as a kind of resigned security.

    Where is Dr. J when we need her?!

  4. There’s something about the phrase “God Bless America” that doesn’t speak well of someone who uses it with a straight face.

    Are you demanding the blessing of God, or are you assuming He is giving it? If you are assuming the blessing, why do you need to say it out loud? Are you not sure you deserve it?

    The phrase reeks of an unseemly mixture of obtuse arrogance, paper-thin piety, and reactionary militance. It is self-parody.

  5. Don’t mind me, B. I’m in a foul mood when I can dropkick Wallace Stevens for taking a walk in the park.

  6. Maybe it is a prayer. An asking of The Divine Power to bless this nation that we all share, or a way of saying thanks for living in a land of bounty.

    Of course CS, I can perfectly imagine you saying God Damn America with all seriousness, so your lack of comfort with the phrase is in no way surprising.

  7. I admit, Bridgett, I was a little surprised to see you dropkicking Wallace Stevens. Surely we can agree that if any poet of the 20th century needs to be drop kicked, it’s TS Eliot. But, if you want to terrorize Stevens by drop kicking Eliot and then glaring at Wallace and saying “You’re next, buddy,” you’ve got my support.

    Lee, but on a bottle of water? I’m not buying it. To me, that reeks of sacrilege. It’s one thing if the person using the phrase means it as a prayer for the betterment of our country. I respect that. But to put it on a bottle of water you intend to make money from? Or to turn around and use that bottle of water as a way to make some point about what a super patriot a person is? That to me seems pretty damn weird.

  8. Yes, Aunt B. “God is not one to be mocked,” and all that.
    But a tangent to your observation: when it is emblazoned on a bottle of water, “God Bless America” is little more than a marketing shibboleth, a dog whistle designed to appeal to the senses of someone who doesn’t think twice about profaning the Creator’s title into a jingoistic slogan that belies the humility and modesty that Jesus Christ personified.

    An asking of The Divine Power to bless this nation that we all share, or a way of saying thanks for living in a land of bounty.

    I don’t think a Christian should be so selective in seeking God’s blessing, nor should a Christian give thanks to God for bounty that might have innocent blood on it.

  9. Okay, but, from the Christian perspective, isn’t it Biblical that you give thanks to God for bounty that has innocent blood on it? In the Christian framing of the Old Testament, don’t we repeatedly see God singling out his chosen people to receive blessings that come at a steep price paid by others?

    CS, I might make a pagan out of you, yet. Or a Jainist… Not that I would make you into a Jainist… You know what I mean.

  10. I wasn’t replying to the cheapness of using God Bless America on a water bottle. I agree there is crassness to it, just like when I see John 3:16 stamped on a golf ball for example.

    My original reply to CS having a problem not with God Bless America in this particular, but actually with God actually… potentially… once in a blue moon… actually showing His favor our way once in a while.

    “I don’t think a Christian should be so selective in seeking God’s blessing, nor should a Christian give thanks to God for bounty that might have innocent blood on it.

    Such sentiments confirm my suspicions of CS’s true intentions regarding his first comment on this post.

    And by the way, God Bless America does not mean don’t bless France, Bulgaria, Uruguay, Sierra Leone, etc, just as asking “God Bless my Family” wouldn’t mean don’t bless the Joness, Schmidtts, or Coopers etc., down the road.

  11. The word should be “blesserize”. It leaves a clean, fresh scent that way.

    Not just the Old Testament B, the whole “Jesus as Redeemer” motif is rife with the guilty being grateful for an innocent blood sacrifice. That is one of the problems with the retributive justice worldview rather than a restorative justice view.

  12. CS, God Bless America was written by Irving Berlin, who was Jewish.

    So what’s your point? “Sugar Walls” was written by Prince, who is a man. If Prince can have sugar walls, can’t a Jew have God*?

    In the Christian framing of the Old Testament, don’t we repeatedly see God singling out his chosen people to receive blessings that come at a steep price paid by others?

    That’s absolutely true, B., but in the Christian framing of the O.T., the whole point of that “chosen people” business was to prove that no matter how much favor God rained down on any specific group, they were bound to prove unworthy of it in the end (being screwed-up descendants of Adam and Eve, and such). Hence the need for the sacrifice of Jesus, which offers redemption to all regardless of nationality or ethnicity.

    *Or G-d, if you prefer. The G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is ostensibly the same as the Christian God. So, again, what was your point? And what was that about a butter knife?

  13. Since Berlin was asking for divine blessing on the U.S. (if you listen to the lyrics, the blessing is clearly being requested, not demanded or assumed) for being a place that welcomed him and his family in their time of need, despite their not speaking the language, being part of a different culture, practicing a different religion, looking different, and waving their hands all the time when they talked, using the phrase in defence of nativism is kinda ironic, no?

    Not that Berlin was the first or only one to use the words. But certainly their popularity today comes from the song.

  14. …using the phrase in defence of nativism is kinda ironic, no?

    Hardly. In the context you describe, NM, perhaps Berlin was assuming that the parameters of nativism had expanded to include him and his family. If Berlin truly believed in a magnanimous, omnipotent, and omniscient God (or G-d), why not include a request for some divine intervention on behalf of those who couldn’t escape the “storm clouds”? Maybe Berlin could even have thrown in a line asking God to rebuke those in the “land that’s free” who had helped to bankroll the “storm clouds,” or maybe he could have asked for some help for those who were living under “storm clouds” right at here at home. It would have been less jingoistic, but more comprehensive and consistent.

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