Friday, January 20, 2017

lament for an Inaugural poet



Image result for on the pulse of morning

In my short 38 years, I have only attended one inauguration and for one reason, to hear a poem.  I grew up in Washington, DC. In the years my family lived there, between 1980 and 1996 we went downtown for protests more often than for celebrations. In January 1993, mom and I bundled up and caught the Metro downtown for Bill Clinton’s inauguration.  I remember standing in the throng of people and watching his motorcade pass.  His window was rolled up for security but I could see a waving white hand behind the black tinted glass.  I had not come for a glimpse of a hand behind glass, I had come to hear the voice of Maya Angelou reading her new poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.”   The year before, I had read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for my eighth grade English class. I knew it would be a gift to the nation and to me personally to hear Maya Angelou read on the National Mall.  Her poem, her voice vibrating through the loud speakers across a sea of people standing quietly, peacefully, breathing steamy winter breath together instilled a sense of hopefulness, a sense that I belonged.  My hope was not in the new president but in the fact that Maya’s truth-telling words were welcome, her voice was invited.  I was coming of age into a belief that my voice would be welcome too, that we were becoming a nation that was growing toward its lofty ideals. I took her words to heart, my fourteen year-old self heeded her words as a commission:

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.


There have only been four inaugural poets in our nation’s history.  Robert Frost, invited by John F Kennedy was the first.  There was a long silent spell followed by Maya Angelou who was invited by Bill Clinton in 1993.  President Obama is the only US president who invited two inaugural poets, Elizabeth Alexander in 2009 and Richard Blanco in 2013. In only four people there is a rich representation of African American, Latino, White, gay, female and male,  people who chose words as tools for inner and societal transformation.   

For the past five years, I have lived in rural Georgia and been have been challenged to love my neighbors while maintaining a voice that is often quite distinct.  I do not want to just fit in or for my kids to accept many of the cultural norms as "normal," yet I want to actually love and know people without fear. I attended an all day sporting event with my son a few years back. He and I read an O magazine together as we waited for his turn to compete.  One of the feature articles was a list of questions to encourage personal reflection and growth. He then read the questions aloud to his teammates. Most of them humored him with their responses.  Except when he got to this question, “Have you tried poetry?”  One child seemed obviously annoyed that my son was focusing more on Oprah than his sport and replied derisively, “Poetry is for hippies and vegetarians!” His mother, the coach, cast her son a silencing glance but did not raise her voice in defense of poetry, hippies or vegetarians. I think this boy may have hoped to insult us with these labels. We just laughed.  I turned to him and said, “Poetry is for you, too.” 

As many writers have already pointed out, there will be no poetry read at today’s inauguration. Poets, at their best, are truth tellers, and truth did not receive an invitation. But tomorrow when the streets are flooded with dissent, the truth will be made clear.  Poetry and truth telling and courage will continue with our without presidential invitation.

 In 2014, I heard Richard Blanco read in Atlanta. As the son of an immigrant, he spoke about what it meant to be invited to read at a US presidential inauguration. He quoted his Cuban born mother who said to him, “You know m’ijo, it’s not where you are born that matters, it’s where you choose to die. That’s your country.”  

What is my country? Death keeps coming quickly and uninvited in this country. What a privilege it would be, what a beautiful nation we could become if untimely death were not thrust upon people- from unborn babies, to death row inmates and to victims drone strikes, state sanctioned police and vigilante killings and shooting rampages from legal assault rifles. These early deaths are not their choice. (I know some may chafe that I mention babies here. I am in no way advocating that Roe V Wade be overturned. I am advocating a culture of life from cradle to grave, a culture so loving, so free of rape and abuse, so affirming of life that it would make abortion rare and obsolete, never illegal).

Before Richard Blanco read, he was introduced by a beautiful rising star in the poetry world named Jericho Brown.  As I heard him read, I thought, “Yes! Him! His voice! Our nation needs to listen to him. Perhaps Jericho Brown will be the next inaugural poet.” His poems cut to the quick.  In December his poem “Riddle” appeared in the Georgia Review. It starts with the unrecognizable body of Emmet Till, the refusal to hear a mother cry and continues

We do not know the history
Of ourselves in this nation. We
Do not know the history of our
Selves on this planet because
We do not have to know
What we believe we own.

It ends with the line, What? What on Earth are we?

Many appropriate poems have emerged in recent months, but this it the one I am re-reading today. 
I’ve also got Maya’s words burrowed deep in the folds of my memory.  As the old song goes “I won’t let the devil steal my joy.” Though my heart is heavy with lament today, he who shall not be named is not the author of my hope. And so I will heed the final lines of the poem I heard 24 years ago today and face this day and the days ahead with a hope that will not be taken by this regime change.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

5 comments:

  1. Josina, how I treasure your unrelenting honesty and love. Cristy

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  2. Thanks for this beautiful and hopeful writing in a dark time. Truth was indeed not invited to the inauguartion, but I stand with folks like you who speak truth anyway.

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  3. Powerful poetry, and a history lesson in inaugurations for me! Look forward to future posts.

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  4. What a beautiful piece of wtiting. Somehow you make me feel good about being a poet! Thank you for standing in defence of poetry, of honesty of words and the healing power it could be! Thank you Josina!

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    1. Thanks Diana! Those few weeks I spent with you in Cape Town made me see the power of poetry and a life of truth telling- keep it up sister!

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