Monday, January 28, 2013

Inaugural Poems: Touching Bones of Consciousness

[By Jerry Ward]

Rudolph Lewis, publisher of the online journal ChickenBones, has suggested that we welcome Richard Blanco’s use of proletarian elements in “One Today.”  I concur. With the exception of Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” an old poem he substituted for “Dedication” which he had written for the 1961 inaugural, inaugural poems do refer to the proletariat or to labor. Frost could not read “Dedication” because the glare of sunlight on snow stabbed his eyes.  Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” and Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” refer to work.  One might argue that Frost also referred to the labor of colonizing.

What I remember best from Angelou is rock, river, and tree, how Nature’s work fits within her commentary on a narrative process:

History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again

and from Alexander’s poem I ponder a single labored line:

A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

It is the use of “we” in the four poems, however, that moves us from selective remembering to critical reflecting.  Frost’s “we” is unsurprisingly Eurocentric.   Angelou conjures Walt Whitman in nuancing “we” as a catalogue of ethnicities.  Alexander’s “we” is metonymic; it must be translated from six crucial lines:

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Blanco gives identity to “we” by way of uttering greetings:

….Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or bueno dias

And yet do I marvel not to hear ---zaoshang hao, yah’eh-the, suprabhat, and ohayogozaimasu.  Perhaps Blanco knows too well which immigrants are unmapped and unnamed, which immigrants and indigenous peoples are repressed in national consciousness.  When his poem speaks to us of “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain/ the empty desks of twenty children marked absent/ today and forever,” we sense that the “impossible vocabulary” silences the survivors of the American Holocaust and of the benign genocide that cultivates mass incarceration.  I do not marvel that inaugural poems touch bones of consciousness, for that is the function of poetry embroiled in ceremonies of the Republic.

Given the widespread consumption of poetry in the twenty-first century, it is understandable that we are blessed with a surplus of poets and poetry.  It is equally understandable that our appetite for poetry marked by proletarian elements may be increasing.

Consider that in the epilogue for Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Lawrence W. Levine highlights the anti-democratic conviction that informed Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, that still informs the jeremiads of Bloom’s ideological children: “that only the minority can fruitfully investigate and discuss the nature of the cultural authority which the majority needs to accept”(252).  Some contemporary poets and critics embrace this conviction without question, but the majority of us who write and consume poetry recognize the conviction is a pile of excrement.  Fully capable of distinguishing what is accomplished or dreadful in honest labor-respectful poetry from what has been trimmed by anti-democratic scissors and merchandized by Bloomians as masterpieces, we know which poems are painstakingly crafted to touch the bones of consciousness.  We know that Brenda Marie Osbey’s History and Other Poems (2013), David Brinks’s The Secret Brain; Selected Poems 1995-2012, Sterling D. Plumpp’s long poem “Mississippi Suite”(published on Triquarterly Online, Frank X. Walker’s Affrilachia (2000),  Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split (2011), and Richard Blanco’s “One Today” are touching our bones of consciousness.

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