From Canada to America

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From Canada to America

Crossing the border into America,
We are also entering into the lyrical
Apex of worldly pop-culture,
From neighbouring Canada, in so many ways distant,
To a world full of show-business, water-resistant
Make-up, and pages of old-new pop-literary vultures.

Billboard after billboard announces:
“MacDonald’s”, “Coca-Cola, 24 ounces”…
“Hotel Hyatt” and “Pop-tarts” and more!
No sooner we get past the border
than: “Pizzas — eat in / take-out order”,
In this peace-loving country you can buy “Guns galore”.

On the radio: “Labour-saving devices
Are on sale now at rock-bottom prices!..
And now for some ‘country-pop-rock’…”
Then a cowboy starts singing his twang
About gunfighters shooting “bang-bang!”,
Eating “Mom’s apple pie — we got plenty in stock!”

At the motel I turn on the TV:
“Washday blues?  Well, your problem could be
That you haven’t yet tried our new ‘Tide’!”
And then comes a whole baseball game,
An interview with film-stars of fame,
All millionaires!  Heard in the background: “Aw’ right!”

At the restaurant almost everyone’s smiling…
“How ya doin’?” we expect from the beguiling
Young waitress who’s forthright but shy.
“Hey, you guys want coffee?  I’m listenin’!”
Her tone is outgoing but persistent…
“One coffee, one decaf” — the awaited reply.

And if anyone dares order tea,
They bring you, you must believe me,
A cup of water with a bag hanging loose.
After taking the bag for a dipping,
Now then, where do I put it, all dripping?
Instead, I should order some “fresh apple juice”!

The stores with every product are throbbing…
“Don’t see it?  Just ask us!  No problem!
The customer, after all, must be king!”
You got sick?  We got doctors, not too pricey!
You want music?  It’s on sale at eight-ninety!”
(In America all “culture’s” a commodity thing.)

*       *       *

So much for a picture in a pocket
Of the big huge American pop-market,
But this is but part of the whole.
Look deeper, peer under the wrinkles,
And you’ll see better, little by little,
Who Americans are in their heart and their soul.

Unpretentious and frank in their candour,
Good and solid to the core with a grandeur,
Dependable, rock-like they stand…
And as back to our homeland we’re going,
We say ‘Bye’ to our neighbours, now knowing
How America’s truly a remarkable land!

Writeen while travelling across America (between Port Huron and Chicago)
27-29 September 1996

Translated from the Russian by John Woodsworth
12 March 2005

*       *       *

Afterword to the poem “From Canada to America”

What is ‘America’ (or ‘the States’) to the Canadian people?  Canadians often bring up the following analogy: “It’s like sleeping beside an elephant.  When the elephant sneezes, we get a snowstorm.  When the elephant twitches its tail, we have an earthquake.  And if the elephant should suddenly decide to roll over in bed…!”

Of course, ‘small’ countries co-exist side by side with larger ones in many parts of the world.  But just picture Canada’s special situation: in spite of the fact that our country (in terms of area) is the second largest in the world (after the Russian Federation), nine-tenths of our relatively small population live along a narrow band 8,000 kilometres long but only 100 kilometres wide, all along our southern (i.e., the American) border.

The forces of world pop-culture, constantly attracting the Canadian population (especially its younger generation) southward, are just barely outweighed by the political forces tying the extremities of the country together from west to east.  It often turns out that trade ties, too, tend toward a ‘vertical’ rather than a ‘horizontal’ orientation.

For many years now Canada has not mass-produced a single motor-car of its own manufacture; nearly all the automobile plants in the country are in the hands of large American corporations.  Right at the beginning of the twentieth century the major Hollywood studios cornered the Canadian feature film market, buying up exclusive distribution rights for more than 95% of Canadian  cinemas.  True, a significant number of films today are made on Canadian soil, but under Hollywood’s direction, whereby our cities and villages are ‘transformed’, for the duration of the shooting, into corresponding American locations, while the major character roles are played by American stars (those Canadians fortunate enough to find their niche on the silver screen are mostly obliged to portray themselves as citizens of our southern ‘neighbour’ and speak with an American accent).  True, there is the remaining 5%…

There are a few Canadian directors, in fact, who have made some kind of a name for themselves at international film festivals for their distinctly un-American-style approach, but few of them can successfully compete with their Hollywood rivals on the Canadian mass market.  And not all Canadians, by any means, especially younger ones, tune in to their own home-grown radio and TV productions — including the output of media created with the specific purpose of uniting this vast and diverse country (a prime example being the CBC/Radio-Canada), even though the quality of their productions is universally recognised as superior in terms of international standards.

Canadians are often accused of excessive caution in the face of America’s pop-culture aggressiveness.  Perhaps the time has come to learn a lesson from ‘Big Brother’.  It is undoubtedly true that in many respects Canada has already earned a place for itself on the world stage, and has managed to come out, at least in some respects, from the shadow of its overpowering neighbour.  Its citizens now need to insist ever more strongly on their inalienable right to self-expression, especially on their home turf.

Just so long as the elephant doesn’t take it into his head to roll over…!