this american moment: of poetry and protest
this moment in america is one that won’t be bracketed by a solitary summer. this is one of those moments when first the rumbling comes, the thrumming down below our soles. and then the shift begins to come, tectonic shift (or so you pray). wake up, america. it’s been too long now. all of a sudden the rush of history — long overdue, long overspent in costs of brokenness, of cruelty, of gravest injustice — it’s washing over us, washing something from our eyes.
maybe we will see now.
maybe, beneath the din, beneath the shouts and shattering of glass, we will at last hear the whispers and the cries. it’s been too long now. far, far too long.
this summer reminds me of the summer when i was 11. i remember riding in the front seat of our wood-sided station wagon, stopped at a red light, when the news came on. i heard the word assassinate once again. this time, bobby kennedy; last time, only months before, martin luther king, jr. assassinate is an ugly word. a word that scares a kid. a word that makes you freeze inside your bones, a word that makes you afraid to breathe, not sure where or why all these bullets seem to be soaring through the darkness, piercing people’s brains. it’s a word i’d heard too often in the first half of 1968.
in the summer of ’68, america took to the streets. in this, the summer of 20-20, we’re at it once again. we should be. what we’ve seen is wrong, and ugly, and violent. and shattering. imagine — just imagine — what we’ve not seen. that scares me. really scares me. leaves my heart — yours too, i’m guessing — in shards. leaves me — you, too? — gasping.
i’m not so much a take-to-the-streets kind of someone. i’m more turn-the-page and pound-on-heaven’s-door. i inhale words to rouse my soul the way others pound the pavement. i feel a deep-down curdling, a rage, when i read the words of poets who are witness to the unimaginable. i wipe away streams of tears. sit motionless, not breathing, when i get to the end of a line that’s just shot through me like a rock to the side of the head.
the transportive power of poetry — its capacity to draw us into the kitchen where the shouting comes, or the bedroom where the wailing rises up, or the street where blood is spilling — it’s what moves me. its ugly truths can mark me for a lifetime, scenes and moments seared indelibly, ones my eyes and ears have never witnessed but which, nevertheless, i’ll never shake.
maybe that’s why — when i got an email the other day from a most beloved poetry professor of mine, elisa new, creator of Poetry in America, now a public-television series, i read these words so closely, considered them instruction for this long, hot summer ahead. maybe, too, for you.
this is what lisa (who is also a professor of american literature at harvard, and something of a polyglot of poetry and poets) wrote:
Protest is the voice of the people, elevated and offered to society at large. The protests we are hearing fulfill art’s, and especially poetry’s, greatest function—which is to make human beings truly audible to one another, to let them hear one another’s humanity and take in one another’s pain. The opposite of hearing the human voice is denying, muffling, strangling its cry: that is what we saw with deadly and literal explicitness in the murder of George Floyd, and in the appalling murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. Killings committed by deputed servants of the public good implicate the public, and they require us to reckon with the full gravity of what these acts represent. Their stain is on us all, and any institution, large or small, that endeavors to serve the public good must accept its own responsibility, and review its own past failings, in an effort to do better.
The voices we hear on the streets of our cities right now are doing as poets [since before the American founding] have done: decrying injustice, asking for redress, but also: telling the particular stories, naming the particular names, with every city and region and neighborhood now being brought to account by its own residents. On these streets, as on the page and in songs and performances, what we are now hearing is not abstract. It is the sound of people mustering language in its highest forms for the largest civilizational ends.
And so in the work of 20th century poets such as Claude McKay, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and June Jordan, and in the work of so many writing today—Rita Dove, Claudia Rankine, Evie Shockley, Terrance Hayes, Jamaal May, Clint Smith, Joshua Bennett, Kendrick Lamar and so many others—Black American poets have continued to carry what Langston Hughes, seventy years ago, called “a heavy load”—of “dream[s] deferred” and plain truths denied.
“…to make human beings truly audible to one another, to let them hear one another’s humanity and take in one another’s pain.”
the power of poetry. of witness.
in the spirit of gathering up a cadre of page-turning protestors, of dialing up our capacities for empathies, i’ve begun to gather something of a 20-20 summer reading list. any of the poets named above would be a place to begin.
but i turn, always, always, to lucille clifton, a poet who doesn’t believe in upper case or think much of punctuation, but whose words might never ever leave you. here are but two that leave me breathless….
loaded like spoons
into the belly of Jesus
where we lay for weeks for months
in the sweat and stink
of our own breathing
why do you not protect us
chained to the heart of the Angel
where the prayers we never tell
and hot and red
as our bloody ankles
can these be men
who vomit us out from ships
called Jesus Angel Grace of God
onto a heathen country
can this tongue speak
can these bones walk
Grace Of God
can this sin live
Lucille Clifton, “slaveships” from Blessing the Boats: New And Selected Poems 1988-2000. Copyright © 2000 by Lucille Clifton.
the lost baby poem
the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned
you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car we would have made the thin
walk over genesee hill into the canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands
you would have fallen naked as snow into winter
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things
if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers pour over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller
of seas let black men call me stranger
always for your never named sake
Lucille Clifton, “the lost baby poem” from good woman: poems and a memoir, 1969-1980. Copyright © 1987 by Lucille Clifton.
and, then, there is claudia rankine, whose words will push you to the edge of your chair. the place to begin would be her 2014 citizen: an american lyric, voted the book — not the poetry book, but the book — most likely to endure in the literary canon of a decade from now by the literati at literary hub, a virtual public square for bibliophiles and word junkies of every stripe. the good folk at LitHub wrote of citizen:
It is a special hybrid of a book, part poetry, part critical essay—the book won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, and was a finalist for the same award in Criticism—making use of screenplay form, screengrabs, art, and iconic pop culture images. It is a complex assessment of racism in contemporary America, on both a micro and macro scale, addressing Rankine’s own experiences, as well as stories of Serena Williams, Zinedine Zidane, stop-and-frisk, President Obama, Hurricane Katrina, police violence—the whole heartbreaking, embarrassing litany of examples of American prejudice, or at least as close as we’ve gotten in recent memory. Rankine won a MacArthur in 2016, but most of us have been calling her a genius for years.
The book is also artful, beautiful, sometimes funny, subtle when subtlety is required, razor sharp when that better suits her needs. It investigates memory and identity and the nature of narrative and self-doubt and self-expression. I don’t know anyone who has read it who was not profoundly moved by it. As Dan Chiasson put it in The New Yorker, “The realization at the end of this book sits heavily upon the heart: ‘This is how you are a citizen,’ Rankine writes. ‘Come on. Let it go. Move on.’ As Rankine’s brilliant, disabusing work, always aware of its ironies, reminds us, ‘moving on’ is not synonymous with ‘leaving behind.’”–Emily Temple, Senior Editor, LitHub
and i will leave you with langston hughes, and his 1927 masterwork.
song for a dark girl
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.
break the heart of me, indeed.
how do you join in the protest, the urgent call of this american moment?
our friends at wordpress have birthed a new way to post, and i am just getting used to its kinks and trick-box. for the life of me, i can’t find where you add images. so i will poke around and see if i can figure this out. for now, these are my words…. (figured it out!) and photo above by Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times…