America, I Sing Back
for Phil Young, my father, Robert Hedge Coke, Whitman, and Hughes
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Sing back the moment you cherished breath.
Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.
Oh, before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.
My song helped her stand, held her hand for first steps,
nourished her very being, fed her, placed her three sisters strong.
My song comforted her as she battled my reason
broke my long held footing sure, as any child might do.
Lo, as she pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,
as I cried this country, my song grew roses in each tear’s fall.
My blood veined rivers, painted pipestone quarries
circled canyons, while she made herself maiden fine.
Oh, but here I am, here I am, here, I remain high on each and every peak,
carefully rumbling her great underbelly, prepared to pour forth singing—
and sing again I will, as I have always done.
Never silenced unless in the company of strangers, singing
the stoic face, polite repose, polite, while dancing deep inside, polite
Mother of her world. Sister of myself.
When my song sings aloud again. When I call her back to cradle.
Call her to peer into waters, to behold herself in dark and light,
day and night, call her to sing along, call her to mature, to envision—
Then, she will make herself over. My song will make it so
When she grows far past her self-considered purpose,
I will sing her back, sing her back. I will sing. Oh, I will—I do.
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Copyright © 2014 by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. Originally published in Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke was born in Amarillo, Texas, on August 4, 1958, and grew up in North Carolina, Canada, and on the Great Plains. In her initial days of high school, Hedge Coke dropped out and went to work sharecropping tobacco, working fields and waters to support herself. She had already been working in factories, fields, and food service on a North Carolina child work permit since early youth. She finished her GED at sixteen years old and went on to study photography, traditional arts, and writing in community education classes at North Carolina State University. Hedge Coke moved to Tennessee and then California, where she participated in retraining for former field workers, studied performing arts, and completed a play, Icicles. She received an AFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts and then took the GRE, skipping her bachelor’s degree to earn an MFA in poetry from Vermont College.
Hedge Coke, who is of mixed heritage, frequently addresses issues of culture, prejudice, Indigenous rights, the environment, peace, violence, abuse, and labor in her poetry and other creative works. She has authored six full-length books of poetry: Look At This Blue (Coffee House Press, 2022); Burn (MadHat Press, 2017); Streaming (Coffee House Press, 2014), winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from Native Writers Circle of the Americas, a 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award, and a Bronze Medal in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Blood Run (Salt Publishing, 2006); Off-Season City Pipe (Coffee House Press, 2005); and Dog Road Woman (Coffee House Press, 1997), winner of the 1998 American Book Award and a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize. In 2004, she also published a memoir, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer: A Story of Survival (University of Nebraska Press), about her cultural heritage, her childhood growing up with a schizophrenic mother, and her struggles with substance abuse and domestic violence.
A literary activist, Hedge Coke works with incarcerated youth, underserved indigenous youth and elders, among others, and founded and directs the annual Honoring the Sandhill Crane Migration Literary Retreat and Festival on the Platte River. She is an award-winning editor of ten poetry anthologies, including Sing: Poetry of the Indigenous Americas (University of Arizona Press, 2011) and Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing (Salt Publishing, 2009). She serves on several editorial boards, as well as on the board of Zoeglossia and Penny Candy Books.
Her honors include a 2017 Tulsa Artist Fellowship, the 2016 Library of Congress Witter Bynner Fellowship, the King-Chávez-Parks award, the Sioux Falls Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Literary Arts, and the Wordcrafter of the Year and National Mentor of the Year Awards from Wordcraft Circle, among others.
A founding faculty member of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing and Publishing, Hedge Coke has held the endowed Reynolds Chair at the University of Nebraska and an NEH chair at Hartwick College and has served as field faculty for Naropa University, an artist in residence for the University of Central Oklahoma, and as a distinguished writer in residence at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She currently serves as a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, where she teaches poetry, prose, performance, fiction and film, interdisciplinary work, and teaches narrative medicine for the UCR School of Medicine. She lives in Riverside, California.
Date Published: 2016-03-22
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/america-i-sing-back