As I’ve been thinking about ongoing posts that speak to American identity, I came across a wonderful site, The Poetry of American Identity. It’s provided by the Library of Congress and is “a collection of field recordings by a wide range of award-winning contemporary poets. Each poet reads a singular American poem of his or her choosing, and also speaks to how the poem connects, deepens, or re-imagines our sense of the nation. The feature includes a print version of the poem to complement the recording, as well as a piece by the participating poet.” So you can read and listen to this wide ranging sense of what America is, and what it is to be American. I think there are 19 poems, and I’m going to start with Ed Hirsch’s reading and discussion of William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie.” I think. Doesn’t matter, I’m going to listen to all of them. I hope you’ll share your reactions right here. I’m imagining all of us gathered in someone’s big comfy living room, listening and talking.
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was the first African-American poet to be published in English. Her work was well known in England and Europe, as well as in America, and was praised by George Washington and Voltaire, among many others. You can read the official stories everywhere from Wikipedia to the Poetry Foundation, which describes her this way: “[p]ampered in the household of prominent Boston commercialist John Wheatley, lionized in New England and England… and paraded before the new republic’s political leadership and the old empire’s aristocracy, Wheatley was the abolitionists’ illustrative testimony that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual. Her name was a household word among literate colonists and her achievements a catalyst for the fledgling antislavery movement.”
Here is how I would tell her story. A child was playing near her home in Africa when she was kidnapped by slavers. She was probably seven or eight, old enough to remember everything (the year given above is a guess). Her real name isn’t recorded it, though she must have known it. When she arrived in America on a slave ship named the Phillis, alone and ill, she was bought—not adopted, bought—by a rich Bostonian for his wife, who needed a household servant. They named her for the ship and themselves. When they realized how bright she was, they educated her—I suppose that is the pampered part—and showed off her talents to others, all amazed that a black child could read and write.
Her poems were especially lauded for their classical references and technical skill. I find them incredibly well crafted, but seldom moving. She writes mostly what she’s been taught, as in this poem:
ON BEING BROUGHT FROM AFRICA TO AMERICA
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
There’s some assertiveness here: we blacks have as much right to be Christian as you whites do. But that seems like a small victory. Here’s the one passage that seems to me to speak the truth of her real feelings. I’m just sorry there isn’t much more like this, from “The Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth”:
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parents’ breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
What of her family? What of her own memories of her life and her abduction? We can only imagine. I think of it as a bleak life made bearable by poetry. I’ll leave it to you to read about her life’s sad last years.
Anne Bradstreet immigrated from England to what was to become the United States in 1630, with her husband and other family and friends. She was reluctant to leave the only home she knew, and their trip was difficult and dangerous. What drove them to make the move was religious persecution and political turmoil in their home country. They were fleeing known dangers and making a leap into the unknown, hoping to make new lives for themselves. They did that, but not without great hardship and loss. Bradstreet wrote about her homesickness (“A Dialogue between Old England and New England,” losing all their possessions (“Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 10th, 1666”), and about her fears, while pregnant, that she wouldn’t live to raise her child (“Before the Birth of One of her Children”). She was the first woman writer in the colonies to be published. Her work resonates over the centuries because it speaks to our shared human hopes and fears. It resonates right now because it speaks to the complexities of the immigrant experience.
from VERSES UPON THE BURNING OF OUR HOUSE, JANUARY 10, 1666
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ‘ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle e’er shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom‘s voice e’er heard shall be.
In silence ever shalt thou lie,
Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity.
BEFORE THE BIRTH OF ONE OF HER CHILDREN
All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joyes attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy Lot to lose thy friend,
We are both ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my dayes that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
The many faults that well you know I have
Let be interr’d in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These o protect from step Dames injury.
And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent Herse;
And kiss this paper for thy loves dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last Farewel did take.
I’m going to post a series of poems over the next week or so that speak to the tensions between the dreams and the realities of what it is to be an American. We are all immigrants, of course, and even those who were here first are treated like outsiders. So I’m starting with a poem by Sherman Alexie, “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel,” that plays on white stereotypes of American Indians. It makes me think of early drawings by white artists of American Indians they were seeing for the first time. Or not seeing: because they saw all the world in their own image (think blond, blue-eyed Jesus), their depictions show people with white features in Indian costume. We have to see and hear and then embrace otherness, not fear and demonize it.
HOW TO WRITE THE GREAT AMERICAN INDIAN NOVEL
All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms.
Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food.
The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably
from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory.
If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender
and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man
then he must be a half-breed, preferably from a horse culture.
If the Indian woman loves a white man, then he has to be so white
that we can see the blue veins running through his skin like rivers.
When the Indian woman steps out of her dress, the white man gasps
at the endless beauty of her brown skin. She should be compared to nature:
brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water.
If she is compared to murky water, however, then she must have a secret.
Indians always have secrets, which are carefully and slowly revealed.
Yet Indian secrets can be disclosed suddenly, like a storm.
Indian men, of course, are storms. They should destroy the lives
of any white women who choose to love them. All white women love
Indian men. That is always the case. White women feign disgust
at the savage in blue jeans and T-shirt, but secretly lust after him.
White women dream about half-breed Indian men from horse cultures.
Indian men are horses, smelling wild and gamey. When the Indian man
unbuttons his pants, the white woman should think of topsoil.
There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape.
Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds.
Indians must see visions. White people can have the same visions
if they are in love with Indians. If a white person loves an Indian
then the white person is Indian by proximity. White people must carry
an Indian deep inside themselves. Those interior Indians are half-breed
and obviously from horse cultures. If the interior Indian is male
then he must be a warrior, especially if he is inside a white man.
If the interior Indian is female, then she must be a healer, especially if she is inside
a white woman. Sometimes there are complications.
An Indian man can be hidden inside a white woman. An Indian woman
can be hidden inside a white man. In these rare instances,
everybody is a half-breed struggling to learn more about his or her horse culture.
There must be redemption, of course, and sins must be forgiven.
For this, we need children. A white child and an Indian child, gender
not important, should express deep affection in a childlike way.
In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,
all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.
I sat propped between two friends at an early music concert. They had taken me there because I was in utter despair, sunk so far into myself that the world seemed far away, seen through the wrong end of a telescope, barely audible. That continued as I sat there, the sense of blackness, of falling through space, for maybe half an hour. And then I heard a few notes, and a few more. Faint signals, but enough to reach me, and from then on I knew I would come back to myself, my life, even pleasures. Music is the consolation that never fails me. My book Sharp Stars is suffused with music, with the joy of writing poetry again after a long silence. I’m in mourning right now, as many of us are. I am throwing myself yet again on the consolations and joys of music, on its own and in poetry. As long as we can hear it, and maybe make some ourselves, there’s still hope. I think of Whitman, “I Hear America Singing”; Langston Hughes, “Weary Blues”; Marianne Boruch, “Little Fugue”; Betsy Sholl, “Lullaby in Blue”; Phil Levine, “On 52nd Street”; Robert Pinsky, “Street Music”; Mark Strand, “Delirium Waltz”; Robert Creeley’s “Water Music.” Please add your own–the ones that you turn to.
I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.
The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.
The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.
I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.
I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.’
The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.
And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.
trans. Robin Fulton
DON’T LET ME BE LONELY [MAHALIA JACKSON IS A GENIUS]
Mahalia Jackson is a genius. Or Mahalia Jackson has genius. The man I am with is trying to make a distinction. I am uncomfortable with his need to make this distinction because his inquiry begins to approach subtle shades of racism, classism, or sexism. It is hard to know which. Mahalia Jackson never finished the eighth grade, or Mahalia’s genius is based on the collision of her voice with her spirituality. True spirituality is its own force. I am not sure how to respond to all this. I change the subject instead.
We have just seen George Wein’s documentary, Louis Armstrong at Newport, 1971. In the auditorium a room full of strangers listened to Mahalia Jackson sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and stood up and gave a standing ovation to a movie screen. Her clarity of vision crosses thirty years to address intimately each of us. It is as if her voice has always been dormant within us, waiting to be awakened, even though “it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, (and) through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.”
Perhaps Mahalia, like Paul Celan, has already lived all our lives for us. Perhaps that is the definition of genius. Hegel says, “Each man hopes and believes he is better than the world which is his, but the man who is better merely expresses this same world better than the others.” Mahalia Jackson sings as if it is the last thing she intends to do. And even though the lyrics of the song are, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,” I am hearing, Let it begin in me.
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.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
BIG BAND THEORY
It all began with music,
with that much desire to be
in motion, waves of longing
with Nothing to pass through,
the pulsing you feel before
you hear it. The darkness couldn’t
keep still, it began to sway,
then there were little flashes
of light, glints of brass
over the rumbling percussion,
the reeds began to weep and sing,
and suddenly the horns
tore bigger holes in the darkness—
we could finally see
where the music was coming from:
ordinary men in bowties and black
jackets. But by then we had already
danced most of the night away.