This July, as we ring in another Independence Day in America, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to reflect on what our country means to us, how we relate to it and to each other, and how we will shape its future. In this month’s PWA, we offer you five powerful poems with distinct and diverse viewpoints on the topic of America.
What is the United States if not a clot
of clouds? If not spilled milk? Or blood?
If not the place we once were
in the millions? America is Maps—
Maps are ghosts: white and
layered with people and places I see through..
by Natalie Diaz in Poem-a-Day.
We begin with “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” by the inimitable Natalie Diaz, who reminds us how white men colonized the land long before the revolution, how they renamed everything and savagely displaced the native people who called this place home. Diaz expertly weaves in pop culture references to song lyrics (from the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs song “Maps”) and then explores how America is maps, how the red and white of its flag are spilled blood and ghosts, respectively. The poem is also an investigation of language, like the difference between wait and weight, which Diaz describes as “meaning heft, preparing me / for the yoke of myself, / the beast of my country’s/ burdens, / which is less worse than / my country’s plow.”
When the country comes together the fold creases the heart of Kansas
dark as thunder crumpling. This palm-line, this clock-spindle, this dagger Kansas.
Locus of self, of only, of home, Kansas
blanches, eats its own tail, ossifies, a ribcage arcing over dust, Kansas
by Brandon Amico in Copper Nickel
Brandon Amico takes us on a journey through middle America in “Sestina for the Heartland.” With dark humor, irony, and vivid metaphor, (“They grow corn in Kansas, grow children and Presidents in Kansas”), Amico pokes fun at the parochial nature of this part of the country (“Kansas knows Oregon like it knows Maryland, which is to say it knows Kansas”) and its lack of diversity (“In a straw poll of Kansas it had the most straw, the whitest clouds.”) But underneath it all, at the root of the poem is a deep and earnest love: “When there is grieving, the name repeats itself until we soothe to sleep: Kansas.” The final couplet brings home how the poem and its subject can be both a soothing lullaby and a soulful dirge: “is Kansas is Kansas is Kansas/ is Kansas is Kansas is Kansas.”
the silence—it is why I can’t
make art; why I can’t sit still in the dark
cave of a forest and think of anything
but spirits; well, not even that but the bodies
of black people, so ordinary, so squalid,
so easily broken; the limbs, the ugliness
and indignity of nakedness, the disposable;
the dead end of abuse; they died here,
their flesh becoming the offense of a stench,
and then, soon, the earth took them.
from “Bones in the Soil”
by Kwame Dawes in Blackbird.
Our next stop is the American South, where we must reckon with the role that slavery played in this country’s history and how the ghosts of America’s shadowy past still haunt us today and cast a pall on the idea of freedom for all in Kwame Dawes’ “Bones in the Soil.” Dawes contrasts his experience with silence and nature against that of a white man who “can walk his family’s acres, / with easel and canvas and brush and think: Silence, / the communion of trees, the confluence of rivers, / the chapel of light, the synod of forgetfulness.” Then comes the gutting single line that stands alone as its own stanza: “I wish I could write myself out of such distractions.”
child after child dies
of the common flu
crying themselves to sleep
caged in chain-link pens,
garlic tied to their shoes
to ward off the snakes—
no lamp beside a golden door.
by Andrena Zawinski in Revolution.
Andrena Zawinski’s “Unholy Triptych for the New Immigrants” painfully illustrates the abhorrent conditions faced by today’s refugees and asylum seekers at detention centers along our southern border. The form and title of the poem serve its subject well, creating a literal separation of families on the page within the poem’s triptych structure of the three separate sections Madres, Padres, and Niños. Each of the stanzas ends with borrowed language from “The New Colossus,” which is famously inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Weaving in the welcoming lines of Lazarus’s iconic sonnet against the images of how America is treating its refugees today packs a poignant punch.
[an antiquated form of call and response—
commit to memory]
this Constitution for the United States of America
[I could not]
form a more perfect
[day in my mind
to start American school
if I wanted to. Even the blue sky was generous]
by Dujie Tahat in Poetry Northwest
Finally, we look at a poem that examines the promises and shortfalls of America’s guiding principles from the perspective of a Filipino-Jordanian immigrant living in the Pacific Northwest with Dujie Tahat’s “a general sense of belonging.” Tahat sets apart with brackets the speaker’s personal unspoken emotional response to a classroom recitation of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Tahat’s poem brings to mind Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration” – a brilliant erasure of America’s Declaration of Independence from the perspective of the people it enslaved.
Speaking of Tracy K. Smith and her extraordinary turn as U.S. Poet Laureate, we thank her for her invaluable contributions to American poetry as she passes the torch.
And we congratulate Joy Harjo, whose recent selection as the new U.S. Poet Laureate has been widely praised. She is also the first Native American poet to serve in this position. Through poetry, Harjo seeks to humanize and heal. In an interview with the American Academy of Poets, Harjo said her tenure as poet laureate would “have a lot to do with Native poets, Native nations’ poets…But it’s also about American poetry and American voices, which is really how we sing the American story, and that involves all of the voices.” (You can see the whole interview here and read some of Harjo’s poems.)
When asked why poetry matters, Harjo said:
Poetry is the voice of what can’t be spoken, the mode of truth-telling when meaning needs to rise above or skim below everyday language in shapes not discernible by the ordinary mind. It trumps the rhetoric of politicians. Poetry is prophetic by nature and not bound by time. Because of these qualities poetry carries grief, heartache, ecstasy, celebration, despair, or searing truth more directly than any other literary art form. It is ceremonial in nature. Poetry is a tool for disruption and creation and is necessary for generations of humans to know who they are and who they are becoming in the wave map of history. Without poetry, we lose our way.
Joy Harjo’s unifying voice and deep wisdom may be just what America needs right now to guide us through this particularly dark time and help us find our way.