How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking 'neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?
Rising or falling? Men or things?
With dragging pace or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?
This poem is in the public domain.
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.
Men never know
What they are doing.
They always make a muddle
Of their affairs,
They always tie their affairs
Into a knot
They cannot untie.
Then I come in
They do not ask me in;
I am the radical,
The bomb thrower,
I untie the knot
That they have made,
And they never thank me.
From Caroling Dusk (Harper & Brothers, 1927), edited by Countee Cullen. This poem is in the public domain.
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.