Poetry Sunday: “American Dream with Exit Wound,” by Dawn McGuire

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I met Dawn McGuire about ten years ago, around the time I got back into writing after a thirty-year hiatus, and I was struck immediately by the power and authenticity of her poems. I was also impressed by her being not just a successful poet but also a practicing doctor, a neurologist whose writing comes out of her daily work with severely damaged patients. The Aphasia Café is very strong, and I’m rereading it now that I have a family member diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia. McGuire’s new book, named after the title of today’s poem, is likewise a compelling read.

Last week was the Fourth of July and July 14 is Flag Day, so it seems the right time to feature a poem that reflects critically on current political events, but in a way that is sensitive, intelligent, and without rancor. “American Dream with Exit Wound” is simple in form: 12 short-line couplets and one single-line stanza roughly halfway through the poem. There’s almost no rhyme, though I did notice consonant alliteration in line 3’s “what size for which waist” and line 14’s “blue as a bruise,” which also has assonance in that repetition of the long u sound. Diction is in the plainspoken tradition, earnest, accessible, and with no interest in playing hide-the-ball with readers. Written in free verse, the poem eschews meter as well as end rhyme. Line breaks are conventional, happening where a reader would take a breath and where, if punctuation here were conventional, a comma or period would normally occur. Punctuation here is irregular, with no periods anywhere in the poem, but we can tell where they would go by noticing initial caps that tell us we are looking at the first word of a new sentence (or sentence fragment) and idea.

Even before reading this poem we encounter its remarkable title, “American Dream with Exit Wound.” The words “American Dream” have become a cliché, albeit one invested with new irony in today’s era of diminished expectations, and especially after the discussion of the term in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Between the World and Me. Written in the form of a letter to his son, Coates’s book reminds us that the American Dream is a misnomer because not all Americans, especially not non-white Americans, have access to the Dream promising upward mobility and prosperity to everyone willing to work hard. For those on the outside looking in, the Dream has become a symbol of the classism and racism now dividing us, and to be “woke” in modern parlance is to understand that the American Dream is not just a chimera but also a nightmare to some extent responsible for the strife now plaguing our country. These ideas are found in many contemporary poems, some titled and some simply referencing the “American Dream.” McGuire goes one step further to refresh the cliché by adding the words “with exit wound.” What are we to make of this?

The title, as good titles should, tutors us in how to read the poem. Without it, the poem is a powerful meditation on drug addiction and war, but with the title, the poem becomes a subtle indictment of America’s involvement in foreign wars. The title enables us to read “American Dream with Exit Wound” as a political poem. It is vivid and visceral and startles us—in a good way—with its ferocity. An “exit wound” made by a gun or other weapon firing a projectile through the body is a horrific thing, not something we like to think about our American Dream having to endure. The title lets us understand that the Dream has been grievously wounded, and moreover wounded by the kind of weapon—a gun or a bomb—common in today’s wars and terrorist attacks.

But, unless I am mistaken, exit wounds are not always fatal and in general are actually less likely to be fatal than wounds involving shrapnel or bullets lodged in the body; the latter add the risk of infection or new injury from a shift of the foreign object. So, although it is very disturbing, the title is not as dark as another possible title, “American Dream Without Exit Wound.” Today’s title tells us the American Dream has been seriously, but not necessarily fatally, wounded.

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  • Jennifer Soule July 8, 2018 at 11:56 am

    Important work