Look, Slavs

David Kirby Click to

dkirbyDavid Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant and has appeared in Best American Poetry four times. Known for his wit and Whitmanesque energy, Kirby is a music aficionado, poetry critic and popular culture encyclopedia. His books include The Ha-Ha (LSU, 2003), The Temple Gate Called Beautiful (Alice James, 2008) and Talking about Movies with Jesus (LSU, 2011).  The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his new book is Get Up, Please (LSU, 2016).

Remember when you were a little kid and somebody said 
“Slav” and you thought they said “slob” and wondered
	if the two words were the same and then realized they weren’t
but thought they might be connected in some way and that 
	maybe Slavs are messy and throw their underpants on the floor 

	and leave their dishes in the sink or are said to do those things
by their sworn enemies, the Whomevers, the people who live
	across the river, on the other side of the valley, in the heart 
of the dark wood. What are Slavs, anyway? Answer: 
	an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group, even though members 

	of that group are diverse both genetically and culturally and relations 
between them vary, ranging from a sense of connection to mutual
	feelings of hostility. Slavs have even waged war on other Slavs. 
Why, though? Listen up, you Slavs: your ancestors spoke 
	the same languages you do and shared cultural traits and historical 

	backgrounds—why can’t you get along? I know, it’s because 
of what Freud called the narcissism of small differences, 
	or “the need to distinguish oneself by minute shadings and to insist, 
with outsized militancy, on the importance of those shadings.”
	But Marie Curie was a Slav, and so were Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky.

	Why not bond in pride over these illustrious predecessors?
Even better, in the sixteenth century, the bodyguard of the Doge 
	of Venice consisted largely of Slavs, which makes sense: 
if your bodyguards were Venetians, some of them 
	might belong to families that hold a grudge against yours, 

	and you know what that would lead to: gossip, rumor, betrayal, 
stabbings, people trying to trip you as you cross the Rialto, 
	somebody else saying, “Look out the window!” 
and dumping a white powder into your wine glass, 
	and when you turn around and say, “I didn’t see anything—

	say, what’s this white powder in my wine glass?” they’d  say, “Oh, 
that? I don’t know. It’s white powder. Drink it! It’s good for you.” 
	But a Slav wouldn’t do that. They’d be on the payroll. 
They like it that you’re the Doge, and they want you
	to be the Doge for as long as you can. I wish I were a Slav.
	No, wait—I don’t. I want to be the Doge, with Slavs 
on every side. Slavs to protect me, to get me from one place
	to the next, to keep me focused on the business of the Republic, 
to put others above myself and insure that Venice is a safe 
	and happy place brimming with culture and enterprise, with 

	green industries and vigorous bilateral trade agreements
but also musicians in every piazza and only the finest plays in our many 
	Venetian theatres. I love my bodyguards. Every time I look 
into their honest Slav faces, I think, “I’m the Doge.” Only Slavs 
	can save us. Only people who aren’t us can tell us who we are.