Sometimes I still think of Gertrude
and all her privacies, of the tenuous
sheen of her thin gray hair,
and the sculptural, elegant way
she piled it high up on her head.
typing these simple words, vividly
she returns, conjuring the images
that made her real, transcending
the withered anonymities of elderly
citizens one passes in the street
without even noticing a whole life
is walking by…
agony seemed different from ours.
Older. Well-thumbed. Polite
And buckled to her person
Like a well-fitting garment. Ours?
Untamed, sharp-edged and shouting.
Hungry infant, railing in a crib. Not
noiseless and ancient like hers.
Nor glamorous as a hologram
Of anguish, flickering and glittering
with broken fragments of
captured light which lit her up
inside her grief and made her
Surely she could not
be as fragile as she looked,
carrying that weight. We craved
the object lesson of her tragedy
thinking it would teach us how
to transcend our sobbing,
corporeal essences that grieved
us so, and held us back as we
kept on searching for the sure
way out: the red door marked exit
that Gertrude (we assumed)
had passed through long before.
If you’re lucky, she once said
elliptically and apropos of nothing
specific, It will bring you to your knees,
speaking so softly we could barely
even hear her, her legs crossed at the ankles
arranged off center, cotillion style
of the debutante she once had been.
Her vein-swollen, bony hand
gestured midpoint of her chest
as if something still lodged there
that had never broken free.
The rest of us felt shocked then—or I did
anyway—perceiving the torment
still living inside her that we thought
she had conquered. The mystery was how
someone insignificant and ordinary
as Gertrude had redistributed
that weight, and reoriented
the magnetic poles that for us
always defaulted to agony.
She had been our hero,
icon of a victory that could
one day be ours if we learned
to live as Gertrude lived: elegant
and stoical, silencing our constant
clamoring for relief. But now
here she was: testifying to victory
or defeat? We could not tell, and that
Fucked us up. Oracular and
Eternal was what we’d
thought she was. In possession
of the answer. Instead,
her image and her words—
It will bring you to your knees
turned us back into ourselves.
where the suffering was,
and the mystery, and offered
no answer but the hard shock
of our knees knocking against
the earth, and the prickling burn
of blood breaking its barrier of skin
and starting to flow.
Copyright © 2021 by Kate Daniels. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 29, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today, you may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song. It says,
Come, rest here by my side.
Each of you, a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,
Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the rock were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
The River sang and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.
Plant yourself beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you,
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers—desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,
Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours—your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
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
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
"On the Pulse of Morning" from ON THE PULSE OF MORNING by Maya Angelou, copyright © 1993 by Maya Angelou. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Mom said, I want to name him Patrick. Dad said,
He looks like a frog. The moon said, waning
crescent. The thermostat said, It’s South Florida.
Cumulonimbus clouds were not in attendance.
Mosquitos said, sugar of life. The night said, Welcome
young blood. Magazines in the waiting room said,
Jackie O and Charles & Di and Axl Rose and Cher
and Madonna and Oprah, skinny in a sparkling purple
gown, is the richest woman on TV. Ebony said,
25 Years After The Civil Rights Act of 1964
What Has and Hasn’t Changed? “Batdance” played on
the radio. The TV said, War on Drugs. The TV
said, Drought. The TV sang, Thank you for being a friend,
travel down the road and back again. Dade County said,
snakes and amphibians mangled by lawn mowers.
The United States said, The life expectancy of black men
is 64.8 years. 1989 said the following for the first time:
latte, caffeinate, cyber porn, viral marketing, Generation X.
Karen was the last thing the Atlantic Ocean said
that hurricane season. Voyager 2 said of Neptune,
What is this ring? What is this Great Dark Spot?
Saturn in Capricorn squaring Venus in Libra said,
Hello small bachelor, here’s your near fetishistic desire
for classical beauty; said it’ll take your Saturn Return,
a whole revolution, to begin loving yourself. Jesus
didn’t say anything but a senator said He did.
On a break, the attendant nurse bought a Dr. Pepper
from the vending machine. Then she went outside
with her menthols and Walkman to listen to self-help tapes.
The cassette skipped and skipped and skipped.
Copyright © 2021 by Derrick Austin. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 4, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
Palm-sized and fledgling, a beak
protruding from the sleeve, I
have kept my birds muted
for so long, I fear they’ve grown
accustom to a grim quietude.
What chaos could ensue
should a wing get loose?
Come overdue burst, come
flock, swarm, talon, and claw.
Scatter the coop’s roost, free
the cygnet and its shadow. Crack
and scratch at the state’s cage,
cut through cloud and branch,
no matter the dumb hourglass’s
white sand yawning grain by grain.
What cannot be contained
cannot be contained.
Copyright © 2020 Ada Limón. This poem was co-commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and the New York Philharmonic as part of the Project 19 initiative.
You, selling roses out of a silver grocery cart
You, in the park, feeding the pigeons
You cheering for the bees
You with cats in your voice in the morning, feeding cats
You protecting the river You are who I love
delivering babies, nursing the sick
You with henna on your feet and a gold star in your nose
You taking your medicine, reading the magazines
You looking into the faces of young people as they pass, smiling and saying, Alright! which, they know it, means I see you, Family. I love you. Keep on.
You dancing in the kitchen, on the sidewalk, in the subway waiting for the train because Stevie Wonder, Héctor Lavoe, La Lupe
You stirring the pot of beans, you, washing your father’s feet
You are who I love, you
reciting Darwish, then June
Feeding your heart, teaching your parents how to do The Dougie, counting to 10, reading your patients’ charts
You are who I love, changing policies, standing in line for water, stocking the food pantries, making a meal
You are who I love, writing letters, calling the senators, you who, with the seconds of your body (with your time here), arrive on buses, on trains, in cars, by foot to stand in the January streets against the cool and brutal offices, saying: YOUR CRUELTY DOES NOT SPEAK FOR ME
You are who I love, you struggling to see
You struggling to love or find a question
You better than me, you kinder and so blistering with anger, you are who I love, standing in the wind, salvaging the umbrellas, graduating from school, wearing holes in your shoes
You are who I love
weeping or touching the faces of the weeping
You, Violeta Parra, grateful for the alphabet, for sound, singing toward us in the dream
You carrying your brother home
You noticing the butterflies
Sharing your water, sharing your potatoes and greens
You who did and did not survive
You who cleaned the kitchens
You who built the railroad tracks and roads
You who replanted the trees, listening to the work of squirrels and birds, you are who I love
You whose blood was taken, whose hands and lives were taken, with or without your saying
Yes, I mean to give. You are who I love.
You who the borders crossed
You whose fires
You decent with rage, so in love with the earth
You writing poems alongside children
You cactus, water, sparrow, crow You, my elder
You are who I love,
summoning the courage, making the cobbler,
getting the blood drawn, sharing the difficult news, you always planting the marigolds, learning to walk wherever you are, learning to read wherever you are, you baking the bread, you come to me in dreams, you kissing the faces of your dead wherever you are, speaking to your children in your mother’s languages, tootsing the birds
You are who I love, behind the library desk, leaving who might kill you, crying with the love songs, polishing your shoes, lighting the candles, getting through the first day despite the whisperers sniping fail fail fail
You are who I love, you who beat and did not beat the odds, you who knows that any good thing you have is the result of someone else’s sacrifice, work, you who fights for reparations
You are who I love, you who stands at the courthouse with the sign that reads NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE
You are who I love, singing Leonard Cohen to the snow, you with glitter on your face, wearing a kilt and violet lipstick
You are who I love, sighing in your sleep
You, playing drums in the procession, you feeding the chickens and humming as you hem the skirt, you sharpening the pencil, you writing the poem about the loneliness of the astronaut
You wanting to listen, you trying to be so still
You are who I love, mothering the dogs, standing with horses
You in brightness and in darkness, throwing your head back as you laugh, kissing your hand
You carrying the berbere from the mill, and the jug of oil pressed from the olives of the trees you belong to
You studying stars, you are who I love
braiding your child’s hair
You are who I love, crossing the desert and trying to cross the desert
You are who I love, working the shifts to buy books, rice, tomatoes,
bathing your children as you listen to the lecture, heating the kitchen with the oven, up early, up late
You are who I love, learning English, learning Spanish, drawing flowers on your hand with a ballpoint pen, taking the bus home
You are who I love, speaking plainly about your pain, sucking your teeth at the airport terminal television every time the politicians say something that offends your sense of decency, of thought, which is often
You are who I love, throwing your hands up in agony or disbelief, shaking your head, arguing back, out loud or inside of yourself, holding close your incredulity which, yes, too, I love I love
your working heart, how each of its gestures, tiny or big, stand beside my own agony, building a forest there
How “Fuck you” becomes a love song
You are who I love, carrying the signs, packing the lunches, with the rain on your face
You at the edges and shores, in the rooms of quiet, in the rooms of shouting, in the airport terminal, at the bus depot saying “No!” and each of us looking out from the gorgeous unlikelihood of our lives at all, finding ourselves here, witnesses to each other’s tenderness, which, this moment, is fury, is rage, which, this moment, is another way of saying: You are who I love You are who I love You and you and you are who
Copyright © 2017 by Aracelis Girmay. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
Before it was day
I climbed to meet the sun
on the side of a mountain.
A high cool pond
poured down over rocks
to a slow dreamy valley
singing of new born clouds.
Facing the warm reflections
on the quiet sky
I bowed and kissed the dew
on the young grass.
But soon I felt guilty.
What had I done?
What is the dew
on young grass?
This poem is in the public domain, and originally appeared in Others for 1919; An Anthology of the New Verse (Nicholas L. Brown, 1920).