It's a day when all the dogs of all
the borrowed houses are angel footing
down the hard hardwood of middle-America's
newly loaned-up renovated kitchen floors,
and the world's nicest pie I know
is somewhere waiting for the right
time to offer itself to the wayward
and the word-weary. How come the road
goes coast to coast and never just
dumps us in the water, clean and
come clean, like a fish slipped out
of the national net of "longing for joy."
How come it doesn't? Once, on a road trip
through the country, a waitress walked
in the train's diner car and swished
her non-aproned end and said,
"Hot stuff and food too." My family
still says it, when the food is hot,
and the mood is good inside the open windows.
I'd like to wear an apron for you
and come over with non-church sanctioned
knee-highs and the prettiest pie of birds
and ocean water and grief. I'd like
to be younger when I do this, like the country
before Mr. Meriwether rowed the river
and then let the country fill him up
till it killed him hard by his own hand.
I'd like to be that dog they took with them,
large and dark and silent and un-blamable.
Or I'd like to be Emily Dickinson's dog, Carlo,
and go on loving the rare un-loveable puzzle
of woman and human and mind. But, I bet I'm more
the house beagle and the howl and the obedient
eyes of everyone wanting to make their own kind
of America, but still be America, too. The road
is long and all the dogs don't care too much about
roadside concrete history and postcards of state
treasures, they just want their head out the window,
and the speeding air to make them feel faster
and younger, and newer than all the dogs
that went before them, they want to be your only dog,
your best-loved dog, for this good dog of today
to be the only beast that matters.

Copyright © 2012 by Ada Limón. Used with permission of the author.

On the fifth day
the scientists who studied the rivers
were forbidden to speak
or to study the rivers.

The scientists who studied the air
were told not to speak of the air,
and the ones who worked for the farmers
were silenced,
and the ones who worked for the bees.

Someone, from deep in the Badlands,
began posting facts.

The facts were told not to speak
and were taken away.
The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent.

Now it was only the rivers
that spoke of the rivers,
and only the wind that spoke of its bees,

while the unpausing factual buds of the fruit trees
continued to move toward their fruit.

The silence spoke loudly of silence,
and the rivers kept speaking
of rivers, of boulders and air.

Bound to gravity, earless and tongueless,
the untested rivers kept speaking.

Bus drivers, shelf stockers,
code writers, machinists, accountants,
lab techs, cellists kept speaking.

They spoke, the fifth day,
of silence.

—2017

from Ledger (Knopf, 2020); first appeared in The Washington Post. Used by permission of the author, all rights reserved.

For our New York Cities

From sun’s first shine, we walk all day
through a dream surreal, our minds wander
a new world from inside windowsills.

We go to bed half asleep,
eyes defiant for the crave of news feed,
quenching our dread on the bad blood of blue light
not sent from the moon.

We are devastate-aching,
this can’t be happening,
a nation stationed inside the nightmare
of a leader unfit for awakening.

We grieve in solitary solidarity
for our country, our New York cities; their subways
riding ghosted through the choking channels of our lungs—
those throats that have known
I can’t breathe
far before our collective chests could not.

We grieve for every building of our boroughs,
from section eight to the unfinished skyscraper’s crane.
Buildings busting with bodies or abandoned by them:
bodies that dance, bodies that sleep,
bodies that virtual meet, eat and drink.
Bodies that cease.

We grieve the gravity
of having to die alone
in a city built on never having to be.

And though our bridges are orphaned arches
left to hold up the sky’s condolences,
they still do connect us.

They still do connect us.

Connect us,
to the cabin fever daughters
watching over high fevered grandfathers.
Connect us to the warrior first responders,
nurses and exhausted doctors,
the recovering sick finally taking off ventilators.

Connect us,
to the maskless, the homeless,
the hopeless, the jobless,
our locals: bars, bodegas and bath houses,
our silent Brooklyn streets empty as ancient desert streams
holding only the echoes of ambulance screams.

Connect us,
to the cherry blossoms standing guard in full blush
while cops bloom ribbons of yellow tape at their gates.

Us, connected
by airborne whispers between walkups,
of missed rhythm, longing for the public pull
of prior swagger,

us, connected
by the daydream of lawless rush hour taxis
rubbing up against each other’s paint,
kissing the ears of each other’s rearviews,

us, yearning
for the crowded irritants
of sweltering avenues
budding with beech trees and brisk walkers.

Us, missing
the middle fingers of strangers,
the playlists of basketball courts
and schoolyard sabotage,
the lights bright over Broadway,
lights low in the Bowery,
lights out at The Chelsea
where Sid did in Nancy.

Us, singing
love poems to neighbors over balconies,
from the soapbox of apartment steps,
a Cyrano of stoops.
Connected by the density of front doors,
the clanging of steam hammer pipes
running through our floors
like the floating notes of festival encores.

Us, dreaming,
still dreamers,
for every future hand
we’ll shake, dap and hold

O, how we will hold you

our eyes lifting from the drift,
breaking open, free
to a new dawning—
wake up! See!—
how we hold you, New York cities,
how we hold you, never letting go.

Used with permission of the author.

who will be the messenger of this land
count its veins
speak through the veins
translate the language of water
navigate the heels of lineage
who will carry this land in parcels
paper, linen, burlap
who will weep when it bleeds
and hardens
forgets to birth itself

who will be the messenger of this land
wrapping its stories carefully
in patois of creole, irish,
gullah, twe, tuscarora
stripping its trees for tea
and pleasure
who will help this land to
remember its birthdays, baptisms
weddings, funerals, its rituals
denials, disappointments
and sacrifices

who will be the messengers
of this land
harvesting its truths
bearing unleavened bread
burying mutilated crops beneath
its breasts

who will remember
to unbury the unborn seeds
that arrived
in captivity
shackled, folded,
bent, layered in its
bowels

we are their messengers
with singing hoes
and dancing plows
with fingers that snap
beans, arms that
raise corn, feet that
cover the dew falling from
okra, beans, tomatoes

we are these messengers
whose ears alone choose
which spices
whose eyes alone name
basil, nutmeg, fennel, ginger,
cardamom, sassafras
whose tongues alone carry
hemlock, blood root, valerian,
damiana, st. john’s wort
these roots that contain
its pleasures its languages its secrets

we are the messengers
new messengers
arriving as mutations of ourselves
we are these messengers
blue breath
red hands
singing a tree into dance

From Breath of the Song: New and Selected Poems (Carolina Wren Press, 2005). Copyright © 2005 by Jaki Shelton Green. Used with the permission of the author.

When the pickup truck, with its side mirror,
almost took out my arm, the driver’s grin

reflected back; it was just a horror

show that was never going to happen,
don’t protest, don’t bother with the police

for my benefit, he gave me a smile—

he too was startled, redness in his face—
when I thought I was going, a short while,

to get myself killed: it wasn’t anger

when he bared his teeth, as if to caution
calm down, all good, no one died, ni[ght, neighbor]—

no sense getting all pissed, the commotion

of the past is the past; I was so dim,
he never saw me—of course, I saw him.

Copyright © 2020 by Tommye Blount. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 19, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets. 

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Knopf and Vintage Books. Copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.

i have diver’s lungs from holding my
breath for so long. i promise you
i am not trying to break a record
sometimes i just forget to
exhale. my shoulders held tightly
near my neck, i am a ball of tense
living, a tumbleweed with steel-toed
boots. i can’t remember the last time
i felt light as dandelion. i can’t remember
the last time i took the sweetness in
& my diaphragm expanded into song.
they tell me breathing is everything,
meaning if i breathe right i can live to be
ancient. i’ll grow a soft furry tail or be
telekinetic something powerful enough
to heal the world. i swear i thought
the last time i’d think of death with breath
was that balmy day in july when the cops
became a raging fire & sucked the breath
out of Garner; but yesterday i walked
38 blocks to my father’s house with a mask
over my nose & mouth, the sweat dripping
off my chin only to get caught in fabric & pool up
like rain. & i inhaled small spurts of me, little
particles of my dna. i took into body my own self
& thought i’d die from so much exposure
to my own bereavement—they’re saying
this virus takes your breath away, not
like a mother’s love or like a good kiss
from your lover’s soft mouth but like the police
it can kill you fast or slow; dealer’s choice.
a pallbearer carrying your body without a casket.
they say it’s so contagious it could be quite
breathtaking. so persistent it might as well
be breathing                        down your neck—

Copyright © 2020 by Yesenia Montilla. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 21, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

acrostic golden shovel

America is loving me to death, loving me to death slowly, and I
Mainly try not to be disappeared here, knowing she won’t pledge
Even tolerance in return. Dear God, I can’t offer allegiance.
Right now, 400 years ago, far into the future―it’s difficult to
Ignore or forgive how despised I am and have been in the
Centuries I’ve been here—despised in the design of the flag
And in the fealty it demands (lest I be made an example of).
In America there’s one winning story—no adaptations. The
Story imagines a noble, grand progress where we’re all united.
Like truths are as self-evident as the Declaration states.
Or like they would be if not for detractors like me, the ranks of
Vagabonds existing to point out what’s rotten in America,
Insisting her gains come at a cost, reminding her who pays, and
Negating wild notions of exceptionalism—adding ugly facts to
God’s-favorite-nation mythology. Look, victors get spoils; I know the
Memories of the vanquished fade away. I hear the enduring republic,
Erect and proud, asking through ravenous teeth Who do you riot for?
Tamir? Sandra? Medgar? George? Breonna? Elijah? Philando? Eric? Which
One? Like it can’t be all of them. Like it can’t be the entirety of it:
Destroyed brown bodies, dismantled homes, so demolition stands
Even as my fidelity falls, as it must. She erases my reason too, allows one
Answer to her only loyalty test: yes or no, Michael, do you love this nation?
Then hates me for saying I can’t, for not burying myself under
Her fables where we’re one, indivisible, free, just, under God, her God.

 

Copyright © 2020 by Michael Kleber-Diggs. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 5, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

An original poem written for the inaugural reading of Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the Library of Congress.

There’s a poem in this place—
in the footfalls in the halls
in the quiet beat of the seats.
It is here, at the curtain of day,
where America writes a lyric
you must whisper to say.

There’s a poem in this place—
in the heavy grace,
the lined face of this noble building,
collections burned and reborn twice.

There’s a poem in Boston’s Copley Square
where protest chants
tear through the air
like sheets of rain,
where love of the many
swallows hatred of the few.

There’s a poem in Charlottesville
where tiki torches string a ring of flame
tight round the wrist of night
where men so white they gleam blue—
seem like statues
where men heap that long wax burning
ever higher
where Heather Heyer
blooms forever in a meadow of resistance.

There’s a poem in the great sleeping giant
of Lake Michigan, defiantly raising
its big blue head to Milwaukee and Chicago—
a poem begun long ago, blazed into frozen soil,
strutting upward and aglow.

There’s a poem in Florida, in East Texas
where streets swell into a nexus
of rivers, cows afloat like mottled buoys in the brown,
where courage is now so common
that 23-year-old Jesus Contreras rescues people from floodwaters.

There’s a poem in Los Angeles
yawning wide as the Pacific tide
where a single mother swelters
in a windowless classroom, teaching
black and brown students in Watts
to spell out their thoughts
so her daughter might write
this poem for you.             

There's a lyric in California
where thousands of students march for blocks,
undocumented and unafraid;
where my friend Rosa finds the power to blossom
in deadlock, her spirit the bedrock of her community.
She knows hope is like a stubborn
ship gripping a dock,
a truth: that you can’t stop a dreamer
or knock down a dream.

How could this not be her city
su nación
our country
our America,
our American lyric to write—
a poem by the people, the poor,
the Protestant, the Muslim, the Jew,
the native, the immigrant,
the black, the brown, the blind, the brave,
the undocumented and undeterred,
the woman, the man, the nonbinary,
the white, the trans,
the ally to all of the above
and more?

Tyrants fear the poet.
Now that we know it
we can’t blow it.
We owe it
to show it
not slow it
although it
hurts to sew it
when the world
skirts below it.       

Hope—
we must bestow it
like a wick in the poet
so it can grow, lit,
bringing with it
stories to rewrite—
the story of a Texas city depleted but not defeated
a history written that need not be repeated
a nation composed but not yet completed.

There’s a poem in this place—
a poem in America
a poet in every American
who rewrites this nation, who tells
a story worthy of being told on this minnow of an earth
to breathe hope into a palimpsest of time—
a poet in every American
who sees that our poem penned
doesn’t mean our poem’s end.

There’s a place where this poem dwells—
it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell
where we write an American lyric
we are just beginning to tell.

Copyright © 2017 by Amanda Gorman. Reprinted from Split This Rock's The Quarry: A Social Justice Database.