Astounding

In this blog’s lifetime I’ve written posts about several poems, including works by Walt Whitman, Sara Teasdale, Wislawa Szymborska, Wilfred Owen, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Seamus Heaney, among others.  For me, the words of poems have a particular power.  While writers of longer form pieces–essays, criticism, novels and short stories, non-fiction–have plenty of opportunity, within a given work, in which to dazzle, poets are often spooling out their message in just a few lines, sometimes filling just part of a page.  So when the words resonate, they seem to do so with greater meaning.

Last Sunday’s New York Times included a section devoted to Juneteenth. The editors asked poet Patricia Smith to address the promise and legacy of the day.  Her response is below.  I’ve read this poem several times already and am certain I’ve not yet understood or appreciated all of its writer’s intentions.  But I’ll keep reading it.  What’s dazzled me so far is highlighted in red.

What dazzles most of all, though, is that Smith has embedded a poem within a poem: check out the bolded final word of each line.

Everything we are is the stuff of astounding?  Indeed.

THE STUFF OF ASTOUNDING: A POEM FOR JUNETEENTH, by Patricia Smith

Unless you spring from a history that is smug and reckless, unless

you’ve vowed yourself blind to a ceaseless light, you see us. We

are a shea-shined toddler writhing through Sunday sermon, we are

the grizzled elder gingerly unfolding his last body. And we are intent

and insistent upon the human in ourselves. We are the doctor on

another day at the edge of reason, coaxing a wrong hope, ripping

open a gasping body to find air. We are five men dripping from the

burly branches of young trees, which is to say that we dare a world

that is both predictable and impossible. What else can we learn from

suicides of the cuffed, the soft targets black backs be? Stuck in its

rhythmic unreel, time keeps including us, even as our aged root

is doggedly plucked and trampled, cursed by ham-fisted spitters in

the throes of a particular fever. See how we push on as enigma, the

free out loud, the audaciously unleashed, how slyly we scan the sky

all that wet voltage and scatters of furious star—to realize that we

are the recipients of an ancient grace. No, we didn’t begin to live

when, on the 19th June day of that awkward, ordinary spring—with

no joy, in a monotone still flecked with deceit—Seems you and these

others are free. That moment did not begin our breath. Our truths—

the ones we’d been birthed with—had already met reckoning in the

fields as we muttered tangled nouns of home. We reveled in black

from there to now, our rampant hue and nap, the unbridled breath

that resides in the rafters, from then to here, everything we are is

the stuff of astounding. We are a mother who hums snippets of gospel

into the silk curls of her newborn, we are the harried sister on the

elevator to the weekly paycheck mama dreamed for her. We are black

in every way there is—perm and kink, upstart and elder, wide voice,

fervent whisper. We heft our clumsy homemade placards, we will

curl small in the gloom weeping to old blues ballads. We swear not

to be anybody else’s idea of free, lining up precisely, waiting to be

freed again and again. We are breach and bellow, resisting a silent

consent as we claim our much of America, its burden and snarl, the

stink and hallelujah of it, its sicknesses and safe words, all its black

and otherwise. Only those feigning blindness fail to see the body

of work we are, and the work of body we have done. Everything is

what it is because of us. It is misunderstanding to believe that free

fell upon us like a blessing, that it was granted by a signature and

an abruptly opened door. Listen to the thousand ways to say black

out loud. Hear a whole people celebrate their free and fragile lives,

then find your own place inside that song. Make the singing matter.


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