Five powerful poems to commemorate this moment in time, as we look toward the 2017 US Presidential inauguration ceremony.
Whatever your politics, poetry can help. As President John F. Kennedy put it, “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.” That’s likely why JFK invited the poet Robert Frost to read his poem “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration in 1961. Since then, several presidents have invited poets, including Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander, to take the dais in Washington DC. To commemorate this year’s Inauguration, we asked five poets to write, read and record a piece for the occasion.
The Presidential Oath of Office seems quirky — it’s in the US Constitution but fewer than 50 citizens have ever actually taken it. I customized it a little. — Rives
I do solemnly swear
(I’ve been swearing a lot)
I will faithfully execute
(ready or not)
the office of resident
(right where I count)
of the united states
(a tremendous amount),
and will to the best
(or at least like I floss)
of my inborn ability
(not like a boss),
(the big, the small of us)
and defend the constitution
of freaking all of us.
by Jamila Lyiscott
“The purpose of this piece is to inspire and sustain those of us committed to authoring hope, equity and justice into our immediate future. My impetus for framing the poem in the future is to remind us that we can claim victory, take ownership of the narrative of democracy and forge a different reality into existence if we can envision it now.” — Jamila Lyiscott
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Minutes before the January 20th 2053 inauguration
My grandbabies and I will be tuned into the worldwide news hologram station
Headlines scrollin’ by about the history of our nation
My granny grays showin’ them that I survived back in the days
So they pumpin’ me for historical information
Were you there during the divided state of America?
My history teacher says that the social climate was lethal
That the country bled
In a curious shade of red
Under the principle of profit before people
That you were trapped in a bad storyline
Like a cinematic sequel
My history chip says that deepening social silos sustained
Hate, division, and misogyny
That social safety was severed by a stratified economy
That the world around you felt more and more one-sided?
And no one knew what to do when the indivisible was so profoundly divided
My ‘Real D History Hologram’ app says that hyper-racial hatred hacked away at the hope of the people
That there was a time when you had to choose between being different and being equal
It said that they would snatch the breath from the lungs of an innocent Black body on a Tuesday and shrug it off as historical retribution
That healthcare became a game of Russian roulette–style execution
But granny, what happened? This is all so confusin’
This history I’m perusin’
‘Cause today we livin’ in the United States of Inclusion
And I don’t understand at all
I even read some trumped up nonsense about an attempt to build a wall
My ‘Real D History Hologram’ app took me back to the days after the 2016 election
Days filled with protests and misconceptions
Days that led to the deepest unity of the people to take the country in a new direction
How you pushed through such uncertain times is just a mystery
Is this real or, granny, is this trumped up history?”
And I will say
In the year 20-and-17
When the putrid stench of polarized politics tried to render us broken
Tried to block our seat at the table until we broke in
Tried to asphyxiate our choices
Tried to Ursula our voices
We the People
Believing in the possibility of a more perfect union
Stood at the precipice of pandemonium and fought for a palpable peace
We stitched together a quilt of hope out of every fiber of our being
We juxtaposed our journey with a history of healing
We organized for all types of equality
Restructured the economy
Uprooted false ontologies and toxic ideologies
We the people
Loved each other like the broken skin of a god
And by disarming any disease to our true democracy we beat the odds
We the people
Faced our flaws
And became critically conscious about our collective care
We did not back down in the face of bigotry or waver under the fallacies of fear”
Just minutes before the January 20th 2053 inauguration
When the world is tuned into the international news hologram station
My grandbabies will want to know how we overcame
I will tell them
That healing is not the absence of pain
It is the decision to act in the service of your development
Rather than your defeat
Drawing the Line Between
What We Lost & What We Want
by Ben Burke
“This poem is a response to tragedies I experienced at home and abroad in 2016 — from the attempted coup in Istanbul and the bombing of Ataturk airport to demonetization in India, the aftermath of the earthquake in Kathmandu and then finally the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland. And more. Like many, I’m left with the questions “How did we get here?” and “Where do we go from here?” So this is a poem for anyone who has found themselves running ragged, trying to put the pieces back together or trying to keep them from falling apart in the first place. I often worry that so many of us put our work ahead of our health, and every year it becomes clearer that the government is a poor place to turn to for help, especially if you’re not in good health. I’m hoping that our big take-away from 2016, and particularly the recent election, is that all we’ve got is each other. A revolution needs healthy soldiers. We can’t take care of business if we’re not taking care of ourselves. And there’s a lot of business for us, the people, to take care of in the coming years.” — Ben Burke
The world doesn’t need my poem.
no more than it needs your shoes.
It doesn’t need your movie,
it doesn’t need you banging and scraping.
It don’t need the things that we use.
“There is nothing they can give me,”
the World told me,
as we sat in the back seat and watched.
“I mean they’re great.
And I don’t need nothing-
I need something-
But not much,”
said the World.
“No, not much.”
I can’t believe it,”
“Are they nuts?!
What the fuck?
I mean, just
look how fucking much they’re doing!
Speaking of which,
it used to be,
there was a time,
when all they cared about
was eating and screwing.”
“So don’t let them
‘Cause I am here to tell you-
They’re all filled up with themselves now,
but one day,
yes one day,
they will spill.”
“Something will tear them all right open
and some will already know the feeling.
It’ll be familiar,
like an old, old friend,
but now it won’t be borrowing–
It will be stealing.
It will take all that ever is
and what will be
just won’t be the same.
It’ll all be quiet.
It will all be quiet.
And in that space there lives a name.”
I was confused,
but it made me think
I thought of the times when we called
where we lived
I thought of music.
The gone and buried.
The done and had it.
The ones who forged their own brass ring,
they never got to grab it.
The ones who just fell off their horse.
they didn’t die.
I’ve always wondered at what dreams tomorrow-
The World interrupted,
I see it now.
I see it now,
it’s plain as day.
Y’all prefer to see through filters.
You think that’s how best to make your way.
Now to be fair,
the Sun is bright.
that’s why I gave you Night.
But you won’t let yourselves collapse.
You hold it in so you can fight.
You won’t get closer
unless you lean.
Yes plant your feet,
but watch where you stand.
Who do you think
that you are
Let’s have a laugh
and make a plan.
I’m only here,
you’re only there–
Just make a move and use your hands.”
I listened to the World,
those here before us.
Yes, now I get it:
Because they sang,
we know the chorus.
The World nodded yes,
They didn’t make it,
they made it.
they’re gone now.
that’s it for them
from here on out.
It pains me to say it,
but that’s how we play it.
That’s just the way that I go round.”
Then for some reason
I grew quiet
in the smallest of places.
And watched Time trace its fingers
across all the faces.
I watched as it felt every wrinkle
and marked every crease.
And took them all to a place
that’s known only as
And then the World
just mumbled softly to itself
and even chuckled,
“If you only knew
the things that I know-
You’d come undone.
You’d be unbuckled.
’Cause the way
they put what they do
above how they are–
It blows my mind.
it would if I had one.
And frankly, I don’t know what to do.
I don’t need your
I need you!”
You made me.
You’re a doer.
I get it.
I’m not saying
there’s a Moon.
is a Sun.”
And then the World wept for a bit
and stared deeply into space.
“You keep running around
and running around
and think that I’m the crazy place!”
“I’m the World,
But so what?
They don’t see me
until they have tangled their strings.
Not until they have broke down in tears.
Apparently, I’m not real enough.
I’m not a thing
They won’t even touch me.
I’m just an idea.”
You’re all you’ve got.
But at least,
I’ve got you.
But you’re no good to me
Just take a moment.
It’s not the What or the Why,
it’s the Who.”
“Take all the moments,
I don’t mind-
I’ve got plenty.
I got ’em all, really,
if we’re being honest.
I’m getting tired of having to break this to you gently-”
Then the World held its breath.
And then it let it go.
It looked me straight into the eye-
“Take care of yourself,”
said the World.
“Take care of yourself.“
“Take my love,
But take care of yourself.
take care of yourselves.
’Cause that’s the one thing I can’t do for you.”
The Not Yet Burning Country
by Lee Mokobe
“What inspired my poem was having watched my own country, South Africa, and how it chose to deal with xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia. I wanted to speak from my perspective as a trans immigrant and how I see America, the good and the bad. I wanted a poem that was as intense yet challenged people to fight for what they believe in and to take part in protecting people like me and other loved ones. I wanted to protect the America I believed in and still believe in.” — Lee Mokobe
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I have seen a burning country before
The kind that just crumbles
And asks of its citizens to call the ruin victory
Where immigrants watched their families become cinder
The ash making dark clouds of the sky
And the people called it night and not death
And the immigrants wondered why they had enlisted into such a quiet war
The kind that did not announce itself but
Erased everything in its wake
To make room for “greatness”
(See: patriotism, see: xenophobia, see: go back to where you came from)
I have seen a country
Break itself apart to make
Faggots of queer bones
And swore they saw God in the mirage of flames
They called it divine faith
Elected themselves deputy jesus’s
And scorched all that which did not look like them
(See: trannies, See: fags, See: I respect gays just not in front of the children)
I know of a country
That cremates the laws in order to uphold
The stale tradition of exclusion and bigotry
And calls that progress America,
You are not yet burning
But there is plenty of smoke
And people arguing whether it is fair to say this smoke kills
Or debating whether those who are already choking are being dramatic or truthful
And the media laughs about the matchstick of a leader
Who sparked the flames
And tells the people to give the fire a chance
Say that it will not be an act of arson
But an act of washing this land anew
Call it a baptismal worthy of erasing
Everything this country has learned to hold most dear
I cannot witness this
And believe that this earth
Does not remember hospitality
And how Native Americans
Had looked at the faces of visitors
Before and chosen to call them kin
To bathe them, fed them
And let them call this home
And in light of that genesis I have found a family here
That lets me call my body mine
And my name glorious
That taught me philadelphia summers
Punctuated by the aroma of halal trucks
And african aunties braiding black girl hair at the speed of light
And a rainbow of melanated children
Drenched in the joy of fire hydrant showers
All this to say
We the people, by boat, plane, barbed wire, social security, visa
It is our home.
We the people, will continue to fight injustice
No matter what it decides to call itself this time
We the people will be meeting this blaze of hatred
With force and not love
We will use our voices as fire extinguishers
Use physical intervention as water that calms the inferno of violence
And our commitment to inclusion as the sand dunes that engulfed
The embers of trumpery
We the people, will remind
America of her true nature.
A home that greets all of its visitors
With a love that sticks
Long after we are gone
by Robin Morgan
“This poem, written quite a while ago, arrived like a gift to me when I learned the horticultural truth about how peonies come to bloom. What a metaphor! The poem seems to come back at me again and again: humble, disarmingly simple, and useful in reminding us that bringing anything to life demands patience, collaboration and an individual, steely resolve willed by those who were never, ever expected — sometimes, even by themselves — to succeed. For me, in these dark, political days shadowing our republic, it is a reminder and prediction of the work we have to do, and also of our capacity to do it.” — Robin Morgan
What appears to be
this frozen explosion of petals
abristle with extremist beauty
like an entire bouquet on a single stem
or a full chorus creamy-robed rippling
to its feet for the sanctus —
is after all a flower,
perishable, with a peculiar
history. Each peony
blossoms only after
the waxy casing thick around
its tight green bud is eaten literally
away by certain small herbivorous ants
who swarm round the stubborn rind
and nibble gently for weeks to release
the implosion called a flower. If
the tiny coral-colored ants have been
destroyed, the bloom cannot unfist itself
no matter how carefully forced to umbrage
by the finest hothouse gardeners.
Unrecognized, how recognizable.
Each of us nibbling discreetly
to release the flower,
usually not even knowing
the purpose, only the hunger;
each mostly unaware of any others,
sometimes surprised by a neighbor,
sometimes (so rarely) astonished
by a glimpse into one corner
at how many of us there are;
enough to cling at least, swarm back,
remain, whenever we’re shaken
off or drenched away
by the well-meaning gardener, ignorant
as we are of our mission, of our being
equal in and to the task.
Unequal to the task: a word
like “revolution,” to describe
what our drudge-cheerful midwifery
will bring to bear—with us not here
to see it, satiated, long since
rinsed away, the job complete.
Why then do I feel this tremble,
more like a contraction’s aftermath
release, relax, relief
than like an earthquake; more
like a rustling in the belly,
or the resonance a song might make
en route from brain to larynx
as if now, here, unleaving itself of all
old and unnecessary outer layers
butterfly from chrysalis
snake from cast skin
crustacean from shell
baby from placenta
something alive before
only in Anywoman’s dreamings
begins to stretch, arch, unfold
each vein on each transparency opening proud,
each petal stiff with tenderness,
each gauzy wing a different shading flecked
ivory silver tangerine moon cinnamon amber flame
hosannas of lucidity and love in a wild riot,
a confusion of boisterous order
all fragrance, laughter, tousled celebration —
only a fading streak like blood
at the center, to remind us we were there once
but are still here, who dare,
tenacious, to nibble toward such blossoming
of this green stubborn bud
some call a world.
Reprinted with permission from the author. Peony was also published in Death Benefits (Copper Canyon Press) and in Upstairs in the Garden: Selected and New Poems (W.W. Norton). All Rights Reserved.