“Claiming to Be Canadian” by Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller


When they come for you, digging
in your breast-coat pockets, riffling
your face with their stares, weeping
over what the men of your country
have done to the women of theirs—
claim to be Canadian, your face
crimping into a windswept innocence,
as when a man seeks shelter
from the Plains of Abraham,
December’s storms the disguised ghosts of April.

When they come for you, cross-referencing
your name against the flight log’s claims
of nationality in the little cabin
where once drinks were served—
describe the winds stealing over Manitoba
with a grain-like hunger
all the way to Alberta. Rehash the descent
into the snow-blind Yukon with the hush
you have taught your children
is the blizzard of quiet
they must observe before sleep.

The Separatist Question? Acts of Confederation? The War of 1812?
What have they to do with the rippling shadows of the wings
reading the Braille of the earth unto the spring?
You have seen the flocks in the television of your heart, now speak
of the late green fields loaded with the necks of barnacle geese.

If this fails, if as the plane banks East,
and they have grown impatient, tell them how
it is a nation turning the gun on itself, your Canada.
Defenseless as a suicide, it huddles around the Pole
the way a man does the torn limbs of his sanity:
ten provinces, three territories, sutured into one body
by ferry boats, trans-continental highways,
a confederation of contradictions.

To bring Prince Edward Island into the fold,
to bring Nova Scotia into the fold,
to clutch Quebec like a raving lover,
a man frays around the frozen bay of his skull,
his soul crying like Henry Hudson cut adrift.

And still, if this is not enough,
if the names of cities come unpronounceable to you,
if, like an encyclopedia, you have whispered too long,
then, let them pry from you your parents’ names,
and when they have them, call it Canada
where your father stands before the idling Dodge
of his failure, where your mother is naked
up to her wrists in prayer, where your sister drools
hour after hour in the dry Toronto of your childhood,
and you—you wake convinced you were nationalized
into the wrong tract of houses, schooled
to sing an anthem that slips from you
like a hand from a throat.

from Rattle 29, Summer 2008


Andrew Miller: “I live abroad, and, for reasons of family, I have done so since 1999. That means, of course, that I was abroad for 9/11 and that I experienced—with the other American expats that I knew then—the warnings about travel that went out to all Americans overseas. If you live abroad long enough, you lose a sense of belonging in the States. And you never really get one abroad. At least, I haven’t. 9/11 made all that more painfully the case, because, when I did go back to the States in 2002, I found the atmosphere had changed. It wasn’t the country I’d left. People were afraid for me. They warned me not to leave again, even while telling me that they felt sure another attack (worse than 9/11) was coming soon. ‘What would you do,’ asked my family, ‘if you were taken hostage like the Iranian hostages in the 1970s?’ ‘Tell them I was Canadian,’ I joked. It was a joke I repeated again back in Denmark to my expat Canadian friend, Justin Edwards, who my poem is dedicated to. ‘You’ll never pass the test,’ he said. ‘You Americans can’t even name the provinces.’ ‘Sure I can,’ I said. ‘Okay, in which providence is Cavalry?’ he demanded. ‘Ah, British Columbia?’ I said. ‘You’re a dead man.’ From then on, we played the Canada-quiz all the time—he asking, I guessing; until my friend—as so many expat friends do—left this way station for another. You come to live alone abroad. You have your family (I have three small daughters and great wife), but you haven’t got a country really any more. It’s just a bunch of memories and sentiments that haunt your identity—an identity which comes with a U.S. passport, but does not come with a U.S. state of mind. As much as ‘Claiming to be Canadian’ reflects a state of fear and the game that came out of that fear, it also reflects a shifting sense of identity and how that identity seems frail.”

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