Tuesday, November 1, 2011

An Analysis of George Economou's poem "An Evening in Kingfisher"

   I begin the analysis by reflecting on the poem "An Evening in Kingfisher," a thinly disguised autobiographical piece by noted scholar and poet George Economou. Structuring the poem in dialogic form, the poet recalls an ordinary conversation between two strangers of different class and, as it turns out, cultural backgrounds. "Huck" Rice, the old guard at the Elks Club in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, and George, the visiting professor with a Greek surname in his tag, engage in a conversation of "odd sincerity," excerpts of which I provide below:
He ["Huck" Rice] squeezes [the handshake] harder,
—"But that's not an American name."
—"Sure it is, from Greece. (And making a good guess)
When did your people come over here from Germany, Huck?" [End Page 281]
Easing up on the squeeze,
—"Oh hell, we bin here forever."
—"You mean you're Native American?"
—"No, no Indian. What d'yuh do at OU?"
—"I teach English."
—"With a name like that, yuh teach English?"
—"I run the whole show in English, Huck.
I'm chairman of the department . . .
. . .
—"I like yuh, George, I'd like
to talk
to yuh 'bout your beliefs."
Remembering Roy Rogers' characterization of Reagan when he was nominated in 1980,
—"Why, I'm 'a fine Christian gentleman,' just like you. Only my kind is the oldest, Huck. Greek, you know, right back to the language of the New Testament (making another good guess) while you Lutherans are pretty recent."
Shaking his head,
—"Greek, and yuh teach English and don't even have an accent."
—"No, no accent, Huck, perfect English. You've got the accent. . . .
A representative of the assimilated "old stock" Americans, Huck deploys a nativist argument regarding the right to authentic national origins. According to this position, only people with Northern European ancestries can lay claim to true Americanness. This is to say that the hyphen, signaled by the Greek surname, is deployed here as a distancing device, a marker holding the "ethnic American" "at hyphen's length," in Daniel Aaron's (1964) apt metaphor. It may function to deny national membership, the poem cautions, at least in certain contexts such as rural America, where the narrative takes place.
Hyphenated identity in this text is contested identity, and the contest is a high-stakes one about national belonging. To frame the two competing voices, so at odds with each other, the poet adopts a dialogic form, a narrative practice conducive to featuring dissenting perspectives, to activating contestation and the repositioning of opposing views. This serves the narrative purpose exceedingly well. Following the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, dialogism in the novel, but also poetry, functions to disrupt the voice of authority in the text by the presence of a plurality of interacting perspectives (see Piñero-Gil 2002:97). The dialogue in the poem juxtaposes two competing definitions of American identity and delves into the ensuing negotiation that ultimately subverts nativism.
The poem's dialogic structure unequivocally frames a recurrent historical reality: inhabiting the hyphen requires rhetorical skills to counter national exclusion. The poetic persona deploys all the resources at his disposal—institutional position, knowledge of American and Greek-Orthodox cultures and histories, wit, educated guesses, and good English—in an exchange that turns into a battle of positions. The speaker displays his credentials and qualifications to establish full membership to the nation, opting for a tactic that defamiliarizes the nativist [End Page 282] logic, turning it on its head on several key matters. First is the matter of English: it is not only that a Greek professor holds a chair in an English Department, but also that his English has "no accent," while Huck's Oklahoma English is the non-normative, accented one. Second is the matter of religion: it is not only impossible for an American of Northern European ancestry to claim nativity, it is the "foreign" Greek Orthodoxy that reaches back to a more ancient Christian history than that of Huck's Lutheran faith. This "hyphenated ethnic" performs assimilation, speaking out indeed "uninhibitedly as an American" (Aaron 1964), certainly reproducing linguistic hierarchies (standard vs. regional English), but also appropriating the hyphen to reverse hierarchies entrenched in dominant society (native vs. ethnic).
The speaker then reclaims the hyphen. From a marker of inferiority he recasts it into a badge of superiority; from a device separating the national from the ethnic, he turns it into a tool leveraging the position of the "ethnic" within the national. But what are the conditions enabling this reversal? We may begin answering this question by registering the speaker's tentativeness in crafting the argument. Guesswork, unmistakably, operates in the identification of Huck's ancestry and the history of language in Greek Orthodoxy ("making a good guess," "making another good guess"). It is plausible here that the poetic persona winks at the reader, establishing an ironic distance from the discourses that define the conversation: naturalizing certain facial characteristics with specific ancestries, and claiming origins to establish legitimacy. This recognition only amplifies the rhetorical dimension of the exchange. The speaker is set to exploit any argument that is required to empower his position embattled by nativism, unabashedly offending his interlocutor.
Tentativeness builds tension in the poem; what if Huck claims native Indian ancestry? What direction would the dialogue take then? Once again, the rhetorical aspect of the poem is highlighted. But tentativeness also marks a point of instability in the effectiveness of the argument; it is marked by the second "good guess," which indicates the dimming of knowledge about ethno-religious ancestry. In contrast to the confident familiarity about American society ("Remembering Roy Rogers' characterization of Reagan," references to national history, and the chronologies of migration histories), knowledge of the hyphen seems fickle. But given the high stakes in this kind of exchange can the hyphen afford uncertainty about its history? A misplaced argument could tip the scale against the speaker's agonistic performance. The poem seems to bring contingency to the fore not merely for the sake of plot dramatization but also for pedagogical purposes: to highlight the importance of cultural literacy about both components of the hyphen.6 If the hyphen is seen as a divide by the dominant society, linking it requires a rhetoric that draws from bicultural education. The link asserts itself at the level of knowledge about both American and Greek worlds.
Putting the hyphen on trial is a political issue. Just recall country music celebrities ridiculing Michael Dukakis's foreign family name during the 1988 presidential election campaign. There will certainly be situations that will interrogate the hyphen, and aggressively at that, as the poem makes unmistakably clear ("and definitely name him [Huck], / to my first team offensive line"). A [End Page 283] hyphenated identity cannot take anything for granted. It means readiness to enter an argument, equipped with all the rhetorical means at one's disposal. The poem is asking, "how should one be positioning himself as a hyphenated American?" to point to biculturalism as a prescriptive answer. It offers to Greek America a normative template of cultural becoming.
[Excerpts from my essay "Reading the Hyphen in Poetry," Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 29(2), 2011: 279–290.] (muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/journal_of_modern_greek_studies/v029/29.2.anagnostou.html)

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