Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used with permission.
You can’t begin just anywhere. It’s a wreck.
Shrapnel and the eye
Of a house, a row of houses. There’s a rat scrambling
From light with fleshy trash in its mouth. A baby strapped
to its mother’s back, cut loose.
Soldiers crawl the city,
the river, the town, the village,
the bedroom, our kitchen. They eat everything.
Or burn it.
They kill what they cannot take. They rape. What they cannot kill
Rumors fall like rain.
Like mother and father tears
swallowed for restless peace.
Like sunset slanting toward a moonless midnight.
Like a train blown free of its destination. Like a seed
there is no chance of trees or anyplace for birds to live.
No, start here. Deer peer from the edge of the woods.
We used to see woodpeckers
The size of the sun, and were greeted
by chickadees with their good morning songs.
We’d started to cook outside, slippery with dew and laughter,
ah those smoky sweet sunrises.
We tried to pretend war wasn’t going to happen.
Though they began building their houses all around us
and demanding more.
They started teaching our children their god’s story,
A story in which we’d always be slaves.
No. Not here.
You can’t begin here.
This is memory shredded because it is impossible to hold with words,
These memories were left here with the trees:
The torn pocket of your daughter’s hand-sewn dress,
the sash, the lace.
The baby’s delicately beaded moccasin still connected to the foot,
A young man’s note of promise to his beloved—
No! This is not the best place to begin.
Everyone was asleep, despite the distant bombs.
Terror had become the familiar stranger.
Our beloved twin girls curled up in their nightgowns,
next to their father and me.
If we begin here, none of us will make it to the end
Of the poem.
Someone has to make it out alive, sang a grandfather
to his grandson, his granddaughter,
as he blew his most powerful song into the hearts of the children.
There it would be hidden from the soldiers,
Who would take them miles, rivers, mountains
from the navel cord place of the origin story.
He knew one day, far day, the grandchildren would return,
generations later over slick highways, constructed over old trails
Through walls of laws meant to hamper or destroy, over stones
bearing libraries of the winds.
He sang us back
to our home place from which we were stolen
in these smoky green hills.
Yes, begin here.
From An American Sunrise: Poems by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 2019 by Joy Harjo. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
I tap-tap-tap the window, while my mother smiles and mouths,
Tranquila. I tap-tap the glass, my mother a fish I’m trying to summon.
I tap until a border agent says: Stop. Until a border agent
shows me the gun on her belt. My childhood was caught
on video border agents deleted every three months.
I thought myself a movie star blowing kisses at the children
selling chiclets on the bridge. My cruelty from the backseat window
caught on video—proof I am an American. The drug sniffing
dogs snap their teeth at my mother detained for her thick accent,
a warp in her green card. My mother who mouths, Tranquila.
My mother’s fingers dark towers on a screen for the Bioten scan.
Isn’t it fun? says the border agent. The state takes a picture
of my mother’s left ear. Isn’t it fun? I tap-tap-tap the glass
and imagine it shatters into shiny marbles. A marble like the one
I have in my pocket, the one I squeeze so hard I hope to reach
its blue swirls. Blue swirls I wish were water I could bring to my mother
in a glass to be near her. Friends, Americans, countrymen lend me your ears!
But only the border agent replies, Do you know the pledge of allegiance?
She points to a flag pinned on a wall. I do, so I stand and pledge to the country
that says it loves me so much, it loves me so much it wants to take
my mother far away from me. Far away, to the place they keep
all the other mothers to sleep on rubber mats and drink from rubber hoses.
Don’t worry, says the border agent, we will take good care of your mommy.
My mother mouths, Tranquila. Her teeth, two rows of gold I could pawn
for something shiny, something shiny like the border agent’s gun.
Friends, Americans, countrymen lend me your ears, so I can hear
my mother through bulletproof glass, so I can hear her over the roar
of American cars crossing this dead river by the wave of an agent’s pale hand.
Copyright © 2020 by Natalie Scenters-Zapico. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 1, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
By the end of the year, I was used to
things I hadn’t seen before,
like a series of street brawls between fa and antifa
that often absurdly tumbled
into the Berkeley all organic full-of-strollers farmer’s market.
Used to hearing about friends’ emails caught up in various FOIAs.
Used to the social media posts about how someone somewhere
was getting a gun and planned to show up where we worked.
I should add that the DMs and the @s were rarely realized.
The gun never arrived.
And if the threat was made good on it was just that moment when
someone called up my boss and she hung up on them, confused.
If there was anything new about this moment
it was that there was no making sense of what was left and
right in the way I had previously understood it,
which was as a convention.
The DMs came in from all different directions.
One day an anonymous white nationalist,
the next a well-known comrade angry in love
and wanting to take it out on someone proximate,
and then perhaps a blog post from someone
who had been perfectly nice when last seen at a poetry reading
but now was very upset about something I had implied.
It was hard to decipher who was hating what on what day.
By the time the state was burning from both ends
and one end was called Paradise,
we didn’t bother with the metaphor.
Instead we just looked out the window, noticed the smoke,
shut the window, stayed indoors, and kept on typing.
Later we joked,
now we know what we will be doing when the world burns.
We will be shutting the windows and catching up on email
I’m concerned about these other things.
Or that is what I thought when they said
they were worried I was losing my relationship to poetry.
It was still summer.
There was a nice breeze.
We had half a day of this beauty before us and we knew it.
We drank a beer that was fresh on the tongue
in a new way. Light. Almost carbonated.
They said they were concerned
about me and my relationship to poetry.
In the afternoon sun, as the breeze blew softly,
I first protested to them not about poetry,
but about poets. Their nationalism, their acquiescence
but also their facebook and twitter accounts.
Their brags and their minor attacks, their politics.
Their prizes and their publications.
Their democratic party affiliations.
So I said to them I’m not concerned
about my relationship to poetry
which regularly felt to me like that moment
when you open your app and there are a bunch
of mentions and you haven’t posted anything a while
and all you can do is say today is so FML and start to work through them.
This is not the same as the oh no way of the Berkeley farmer’s market brawl,
not the state burning and burning again,
but still, how to write an epiphanic possibility in this sociality?
I had written for so long about being together,
about how we were together like it or not.
I had used a metaphor of breath and of space.
I had embraced the epiphanic
not just at the end of the poem, as was the lyric convention,
but sometimes I even made the whole poem epiphanic.
And that I couldn’t do anymore.
Lately there wasn’t any singing that I could hear.
Just attempts. Dark times.
Nothing about this terrible moment was new though.
It has always been a terrible moment.
And there have always been poets too.
And always poets writing the terrible nation into existence.
This is one reason I will never get a tramp stamp that says
poetry is my boyfriend.
I thought for a while there were two sorts of poets.
Poets who write the terrible nation into existence
and poets screwing around doing something else.
For years I was on team poets screwing around doing something else.
For years I had used poetry to slip away,
elude the hold of the family, the coupleform, the policing of tradition,
to pry open time into an endless stretch of possibility.
In that room where we try to pry open possibility.
When I first heard the avant garde
I heard it as an opening. A door. A window,
Maybe a garage door.
A hole in the wall I could shimmy through.
I heard it as an opening. All sorts of openings.
I could make the hole.
Or my pink crowbar could.
I would be writing and I would fall into the singing,
That whoosh. The singing whoosh.
And because at first I saw myself as someone who wanted
an opening in the tradition,
I split this whoosh up all the time.
I fragmented it into words or took away its deictics.
Another friend, a poet, who no longer talks to me
once gave me the image of the pink crowbar
as a way of thinking about writing.
Losing her was a loss all around.
But to compensate for that loss
I think often about pulling something open.
Although I’m fairly convinced she would grab
the pink crowbar out of my hand if she saw me wielding it.
For years, there was that perfect moment after the reading
where we had to leave the bar because
the couples were coming to buy their cocktails
and we couldn’t figure out where to go.
Maybe it was Friday or Saturday night and all the bars
were full of people who were not talking about poetry
so we kept walking, looking in each bar and each one wrong.
Eventually the streets opened up and we were at the bridge
and there was a river and we walked across the open space to it
and climbed down its sides and sat there.
We had bought some beers and a small glass flask of whiskey from a bodega.
We carried the cans and the flask in brown bags as a convention.
But we did not need this convention.
If there was law, the law drove by, didn’t stop.
Other things were. Night. Maybe moon. Water. Rats.
Sometimes drugs were involved.
We walked through Wall Street at 3 am and
we rattled the locked doors of all the buildings, laughing
at their absurdity because we knew where it was at
and at was rattling the doors.
During these days,
I would wake up and my head would hurt
and then I would realize that in my dream
I had said to myself that I should write some poetry.
But my dreams never explained to me why.
How to sing in these dark times?
It is true that I have been with poetry for a long time.
Since I was a teenager.
Those loves of many years and our bodies changing together.
And yet also the deepening of this love. Despite.
That day with the breeze in the bar
And we said together, there needs to be some pleasure in the world.
And next, poetry is the what is left of life.
And we pledged, more singing.
And we referenced by saying,
In the dark times. Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.
At night I thought if I just read all of Brecht,
I would maybe find the singing.
So I began to read Brecht that night,
in bed with my son while he too read before he went to sleep.
There was a new edition.
It was hard to hold because it was so big.
I rested it on a pillow and I rested my head on a pillow
and I turned the pages looking for the singing.
I couldn’t find the singing.
After I started reading Brecht,
I began sorting through my books. I had too many.
As I pulled them off the shelves, blew off the dust,
I asked myself would I need it if there was a revolution.
It turned out that I thought I would for sure need
five translations of the Odyssey
and all the books of Susan Howe.
I kept all the plant books too.
The comfort of the Jespen Manual of Vascular Plants of California.
It’s an open question if the revolution will still need poetry,
its tradition and its resistance to that tradition.
But it will for sure need the Vascular Plants of California.
It’s always been a terrible moment.
But now I understand it as even more terrible.
The nation is for sure not my boyfriend.
But the land it claims,
though I don’t claim it,
I hold my love for this land on my underside,
in a small pocket that eventually bursts to release my love spores.
I mean it is not a casual love.
It is though a difficult one. Threatened. Invaded.
A friend is dying
as the scotch broom is putting out its nitrogen fixing roots
but our friendship died years before
the seed pods open explosively
another friend has cancer
and last for eighty years
and yet another friend now in the world in some new way
but they are hard and survive rough transport through water
and mainly it was all the information
fleshy and full of proteins in a way that interests ants
we suddenly knew about everything
as the ants carry the seeds back to their nests creating dense infestations.
A mixture of hell. A metaphor of resilience.
The scotch broom has so many tricks.
Grows in patches and as scattered individuals
with a total cover of about 15 percent and 35 percent, respectively.
As does the Tree of Heaven.
There is no space too polluted for it.
It absorbs sulfur dioxide in its leaves.
It can withstand cement dust and fumes from coal tar operations,
as well as resist ozone exposure relatively well.
It grows fast, and even faster in California.
And once it starts, it shows up everywhere,
impossible to destroy.
Loves the fires.
Everything. Never ending.
Everything. Yet to come.
And yet the world and the leaves continue to exist.
Yellow veins. Flowers.
Large, compound leaves.
Arranged. Alternately on the stem.
11-33 leaflets. Occasionally up to 41.
One to three teeth on each side. Close to the base.
Yellow-green to reddish. Flowers.
Everything. Panicles up to 30 cm long.
Copyright © 2020 by Juliana Spahr. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 17, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
How dreary the winds shriek and whine:
The trembling shadows grow chill.
O soul of my soul, wert thou mine!
O where are the stars that did shine?
The moonlight that tinselled the hill?
How dreary the winds shriek and whine!
Despair ’round my heart doth entwine,
Far soundeth my cry weird and shrill:
O soul of my soul, wert thou mine!
I’ve quaffed to the dregs the mad wine
Of passion, but under my sill
How dreary the winds shriek and whine!
’Tis thine, is the dream so divine,
That doth this vain yearning instill;
O soul of my soul, wert thou mine!
’Tis mine, here to crave and to pine
For what thou wilt never fulfill;
How dreary the winds shriek and whine!
O soul of my soul, wert thou mine!
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on December 6, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
We might have coupled
In the bed-ridden monopoly of a moment
Or broken flesh with one another
At the profane communion table
Where wine is spilled on promiscuous lips
We might have given birth to a butterfly
With the daily news
Printed in blood on its wings.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on December 5, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
how it would be here with you,
where the wind
that has shaken off its dust in low valleys
touches one cleanly,
as with a new-washed hand,
is as the remote hunger of droning things,
but a little silence
sinking into the great silence.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on December 12, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
After the pain of one thing you found
another less sharp it tickled
the hurt you kept company
to feel again so you
could go on without
one more time
On the way to the island what happened
receded like the shoreline you knew
it grew smaller but you didn’t
find or try or think or see
a way to keep the scale
as it had been before.
Things happened. That’s no:
It’s not sealed.
The green light Rohmer wrote of in that film
what did it mean? Can you remember
anything more than the hopeful
expression fading from each
character… is a dream
the grass blown against
the source… is it
that or that
Sisyphean levity we said our
joy cresting as we turned outside out
ourselves our happiest moments
in rooms four-or five-sided
by air and earth and trees
we hold that sometimes
Let’s make a prairie one beautiful thing
we will have to remember again
our agreement to make a way
out of what we are given
the uprooting terror
of our undoing. First
cut what has been
Today everything you love weeps and leans
its metaphoric arms to the ground
pendula pendula the trees
take their shape from their parents
even the peashrub sprawls
outward and downward.
Today’s a day
No one has come to tell us what we want
to hear is hardly the wondrous thing
existence is though we wonder
whether each opening takes
will take us further on
from from to into
from from to to
from from yes
Chores enough for days and days enough for
whatever we might want time to do
days sweep and cower under breath
sleeping under the daylight
bower rocking in wind
we are the baby
the baby cries
what it wants
Copyright © 2020 by G. E. Patterson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 16, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
That is solemn we have ended,—
Be it but a play,
Or a glee among the garrets,
Or a holiday,
Or a leaving home; or later,
Parting with a world
We have understood, for better
Still it be unfurled.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on December 26, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
There is no name for what rises in you
as you enter the dim world of the taxi
and wheel through the night, escorted
by smooth jazz and a battalion of street-
lights. At the airport, you heave the bags
you have stuffed to the limits of carriage
and check them in. You have no trouble
knowing what to do with your empty
hands. At security, the usual stripping.
You surrender your body to the scan,
the searching sweep, as if what is dangerous
is not what cannot be so easily detected.
You comply. At the gate, grateful to be
early, you sit with your books, plug in
devices that tether you to this place
you’re meant to be leaving, that crowd
out thoughts of arrival and its bittersweet
complications. Yuh going home or just visiting,
someone will ask, and you never know
how you will answer. You know the bones
of your mother’s brown arms will wind
around you, her breath against your neck
will baptize you again in names you have
no one to call you in the other place
you belong to. You know the waiting
untended in you will surge toward her,
and you know something else will sink,
sulk itself into a familiar, necessary sleep.
You know yourself now only as the ocean
knows this island—always pulling away,
always, always, returning.
Copyright © 2021 by Lauren K. Alleyne. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 12, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
that holds me.
This is a little psalm
in the moon-
for I haven’t been
patient as promised.
for the desperate
There is so little
to hold, I said
as I held it. Each
Copyright © 2021 by Andrés Cerpa. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 18, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
A moment of pleasure,
An hour of pain,
A day of sunshine,
A week of rain,
A fortnight of peace,
A month of strife,
These taken together
Make up life.
One real friend
To a dozen foes,
Two open gates,
’Gainst twenty that’s closed,
Then adversity’s knife;
These my friends
Make up life.
At daybreak a blossom,
At noontime a rose,
At twilight ’tis withered,
At evening ’tis closed.
The din of confusion,
The strain of the fife,
These with other things
Make up life.
A smile, then a tear,
Like a mystic pearl,
A pause, then a rush
Into the mad whirl,
A kiss, then a stab
From a traitor’s knife;
I think that you’ll agree with me,
That this life.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on July 31, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
Inside a valley
arranged in tableau—once,
my hidden year,
no one noticed we lay down
in grass & leaves
where later I buried
my letter, where I wrote
how it was.
Do you remember
the coil of a literal phone line,
print of a body’s missing
breath. It’s hard to write
the ancient years
when you are midlife
as a creek running
hills of hardwoods.
of her face
off the forested
page & all the books
we read to find ourselves
unseen. Who drew you
a thousand grieving seeds.
Copyright © 2021 by Rachel Moritz. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 10, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
When I say Black, what I mean is the curl of my hair is tight enough to snag the teeth of a wide-tooth comb. So, I don't comb my hair when I'm in the comfort of my home. This comfort is the standard by which I determine who, what, where is home. I rarely feel home in my father's home.
When I was 21, my father kissed my forehead and this was the first time he ever kissed me. My father’s lips recall a different story. But this is my tale of a boy whose hard head grew tender from his father’s kiss. The words I love you, boy seeped into my newly-softened skull. For just a moment, my father returned my boyhood so he could feel the gratification of kissing his son goodnight. It had to be that way.
The only way to rake my hair into a neat brush of manageable coils is to first wet it thoroughly. Before I leave my home, I sometimes—most times—tame my hair with water to allow it to floss the teeth of the comb, to bear the brunt of its bite. I sometimes long for watered-down brown tresses that know to bow to the comb's might. I sometimes wish my hair would grow into an impenetrable forest, endless and black as starless nights.
When I say Black, I mean my father's hardened bosom has left me disheartened—desensitized to all but the snatch of a fine-tooth comb. I've been taught a man must be made a boy before he can receive a kiss from another man, and such ancient magic must be sparingly used. Sometimes—most times—I sleep with one eye open and hope to reunite with the strange magician who makes boys of men with forehead kisses. On these nights, I lie in bed and wait for him to cast his spell. As I sleep, my father combs his fingers through my hair and plants his lips on my eager forehead. On these nights, I wake floating above my bed in boyish bliss. On these nights, I feel home.
Copyright © 2021 by Dāshaun Washington. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 11, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
the life of a writer is desire
i hammer into the page
i make up my mind: the streetlight
is not the moon, but anything can be
made beautiful under the ease
of my hammer
i wish you could see that i write in blue ink
the color of oceans & early mornings
& everything is clear like
tears rushing towards the chin
of my desire. i pen what i’m meant
to pen. how deep in love i am
& how silly of me to spend all morning dreaming
about love & not expect my
desire to set me free
the knives of my fingers tap
out the notion that if i turn the key
it will unlock.
admittedly, i am foolish
about love—a simple yes excites me—
‘cause i know that all that i require will be met
like water meets the tongue. it’s scary
desire, a small fan at my window in the summer,
a booklight lighting the pages of my life
Copyright © 2021 by Jalynn Harris. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 19, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
I imagine today just like yesterday—
I will spend the morning writing and then,
when the tide recedes, I’ll trip along drift lines
searching. Yesterday I found an entire sand dollar
and four amber sea agates. The day before—
a red plastic heart stuck in driftwood. But
Anne, what I really want to find
is a buoy. A fine glass fishing buoy, like the one
you brought to our third-grade show-and-tell
in 1982. A perfect glass bauble, wrapped in brown
hemp. Mint green, cerulean, sparkling, and you,
Anne, gleaming, cradling the globe, in small,
flawless hands. You illumed, Anne, in front of the class,
teaching us what your Grandma taught you
about glassblowing and fishing nets and the tide
that carried that buoy all the way from Japan
to the Oregon Coast, so far from our landlocked
Colorado town, so far from anywhere
our imaginations had yet taken us. Even those of us
in the back row could see. Anne,
tall and gangly, shy and anxious, you traveled
to the sea and brought back a flawless
glass buoy. Even those who teased you hardest
felt the weight of envy. “Be careful,”
you begged us, hinting finally toward fragility, rarity.
Yet these years later I am still searching the wrack
lines, my hands begging back that unbroken
weight, as if by finding my own buoy I might know something
please forgive me, I held on too loose—
what do ten-year-old hands know of mortality or the way
lives can be shattered on coasts? What
does this forty-nine-year-old heart understand
about the mechanics of staying afloat, of netting a life
and not letting go?
Copyright © 2021 by CMarie Fuhrman. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 16, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.