Praise Song for the Day BY ELIZABETH ALEXANDER A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other’s eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair. Someone is trying to make music somewhere, with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum, with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice. A woman and her son wait for the bus. A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin. We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider. We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of some one and then others, who said I need to see what’s on the other side. I know there’s something better down the road. We need to find a place where we are safe. We walk into that which we cannot yet see. 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. Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables. Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself, others by first do no harm or take no more than you need. What if the mightiest word is love? Love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light, love with no need to pre-empt grievance. In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, any thing can be made, any sentence begun. On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp, praise song for walking forward in that light. Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. A chapbook edition of Praise Song for the Day will be published on February 6, 2009. Source: Praise Song for the Day (Graywolf Press, 2009)
I write poems. I have for a long time. Some of them are not for public cosumption. Some of them are angsty and old and… telling.
I was reading some of them today. Some of my old poems. Perception is weird. Sometimes I like them. Sometimes I don’t. Today I liked this one.
The sun flew in
Through the window
And a newness sprang forth
From the darkness before
Why do you suppose
The rose opened up
Like I opened up
To new beginnings?
A crowded room
A silent street
What is the difference
Always with someone
A cascade of feelings
Parading through my mind
In a smoke-filled room.
I wonder often
And in dreams
Of the mysteries of myself
And the world
I think a thousand thoughts
All at once
And really nothing at all
All poetry is about hope.
A scarecrow walks into a bar.
An abandoned space station falls to earth.
When probing the monster’s brain,
you’re probably probing your own.
A beautiful woman becomes a ghost.
I hope I never miscalculate the dosage
that led to the infarction
of my lab rabbit again.
All poetry is a form of hope.
Not certain, just actual
like love and other traffic circles.
I cried on that airplane too,
midwest patchwork below
like a board game on which
mighty forces kick apart the avatars.
I always wanted to be the racecar
but usually ended up a thumbtack.
When I was young, sitting in a tree
counted as preparation and later
maybe a little whoopie in the morgue.
So go ahead, thaw the alien, break
the pentagram but watch out for
the institutional hood ornaments.
It’s not a museum, it’s a hive.
The blood may be fake
but the bleeding’s not.
~Dean Young – 1955
The Northeast has lost millions of poems,
reducing the canopy. Just a few days ago,
high winds knocked a poem onto a power line
A recent study found that poems increased
the sale price of a home by close to $9,000.
The years, however, have not been kind to poems.
a few blocks from my house.
I had not expected to lose so many at once.
“We’ve created a system that is not healthy
for poems,” said someone. Over the next thirty years,
there won’t be any poems where there are overhead wires.
Some poems may stay as a nuisance,
as a gorgeous marker of time.
~ by Catherine Barnett
Hey Kevin, I know
I’m always talking,
but look at those
two little boys who
don’t know any better –
they’re using a king
as a pawn, a pawn
as a knight, a queen
as a bishop-and isn’t
not knowing the rules
where’s the joy
in shouldering night
when we can be carpenters
of unmade things,
flailing our hammers
whichever way we please
in the dark? I’m sorry
I’m talking too much
for this chess game,
but I get nervous.
Are there people out there
who say we’re dangerous?
When the sun echoes
off the thousands
locked in the morning commute,
do you sometimes feel
like we’re dressed for a party
we couldn’t ever hope
to be invited to?
Do the idling engines
Kevin, are you sure you want
to trade your knight
for a rook? Why is it
that once we take
our hand off of it,
we can’t take it back?
~Keith Leonard, Ramshackle Ode
This is her descending
in a hidden photograph
taken when I was
an infant and Mother held me
at arm’s length. I look back
for her, unsurprised
still questioning why she doesn’t return
my gaze. Her eyes
fix on a spot between
her face and my face. For the infant
there is no distinction.
Her disaffection stains the intimate
objects found years later
among her things of everyday:
a thimble embroidered with a single petal.
a slim gold watch-stopped.
Brushes held to
dry in a bamboo roll. A tiny lime
and fuchsia dress sewn by her
hands for my hundredth day.
His wedding band, scarred
a muted gray. In the gap between us
a vacancy swells and bellies
the air where her eyes avert mine
to slide off where? I wish I could see her
engage and ignite
these traces of the ordinary,
the minutely particular
totems of our daily life: holy.
In an old dream, I plot a little boy’s flight.
Like a fighter pilot, I drop
a homing device back in time to spy
into the landscape of my infancy
before she turned her face away-
before my need was extraordinary.
~Eleanor Chai, Standing Water Poems
Days been dark
don’t say “in these dark days”
done changed my cones and rods
Sometimes I’m the country
other times the countryside
I put my clothes back on
to take them off again
~ Fady Joudah
The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.
O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?
O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.
I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.
~ Walt Whitman
All day on all my days,
the lives I’m not to process wash in;
anxieties lullaby on
and quite like to be gotten among;
but now—and now—one old,
abundant flower just screws up the room.
I followed myself for a long while, deep into the field.
Two heads full of garbage.
Our scope was larger than I realized,
which only made me that much more responsible.
Yellow, yellow, gold, and ocher.
We stopped. We held the field. We stood very still.
Everyone needs a place.
You need it for the moment you need it, then you bless it—
thank you soup, thank you flashlight—
and move on. Who does this? No one.
When you doubt the world
look at the undivided darkness
look at Wheeler Peak
cliffs like suspended prayers
contemplate the cerulean
the gleaming limestone
the frozen shades
look at the bristlecone pine
a labyrinth to winding wonders
listen to the caves
remember the smell of sagebrush
after a thunderstorm
that Lexington Arch
is a bridge of questions
in the solitude of dreams
distances disturb desire
to deliver a collision of breaths
the desert echoes
in this dark night sky
stars reveal the way
a heart can light a world.
a spot of sun,
bar sign, label
light where you
Or a name
of a subway car
that only makes sense
when you say it aloud
in your head
as it passes.
by Carl Sandburg
Desolate and lone
All night long on the lake
Where fog trails and mist creeps,
The whistle of a boat
Calls and cries unendingly,
Like some lost child
In tears and trouble
Hunting the harbor’s breast
And the harbor’s eyes.
Wow… Thanksgiving is tomorrow. Can’t believe it. Sometimes these things sneak up on us. Not that we aren’t prepared, we are. It’s just that I can’t believe it’s already that time of year. We have entered the holiday season. And again I’ll say… wow.
Now that I’m getting over my shock at the time of year it is, I want to give some thanks, as has become my tradition here at the think tank every year. I am thankful for so many things….
First, as always, I’m thankful for my honey. I just spent a couple of weeks away from her and let me tell you, I’m no good without her. I mean this in a metaphorical sense people so don’t go making assumptions about my lack of self esteem… my self esteem is in tact. It’s just that I don’t like being without her. As I explained to my Mom and my brother, Karen is my home. A house is a structure that, if done correctly, reflects who we are, feels cozy to that end, and shelters us from the elements. A home, on the other hand, is where our heart lives. Mine lives with Karen. Hers with me. We are simpatico in this. Which makes it all the more real and heartfelt. My home is with her, no matter where we live, and I am beyond thankful for that. I’m blessed to have met her, lucky to have snagged her, and honored and humbled by the fact that she continues to love me, and love me more every day. I can’t begin to express what this means to me, and really I don’t think there are words to describe it. She is my breath, my light, my warmth, my love. She is my split apart, and I am hers. I whisper, thank you thank you thank you, out to the universe every day for her.
Mom and Kev… We are, and have been for a long long time, the three amigos. Having spent time with you these least three weeks (one here and two there), I appreciate you even more, if that’s even possible. There is a magic that happens when we are all in the same room. I’m so lucky to be a part of that. So lucky to have you… I feel love and gratitude for you every day.
Mary, Martin, and our little man… Thank you. Thank you for allowing me into your lives, into your family. As I’ve said before, I never had my own children, but nevertheless I consider you mine. I feel a part of a family, with children, and grandchildren, that I would never have without you and your acceptance and love of me. I love you guys and am so very grateful for you every day.
My family and friends… I tear up thinking about all of you, near and far. For one person to be blessed with such an outstanding group of people in my life… I am so humbled. You bring the zest, the encouragement, the support, the fun, and more love than I thought possible. I’m amazed every day by the depth and quality of the people in my life. Not only the sheer numbers of you, but by the people you are. Each and every one of you is a stellar human. I mean this. Family to friends, each of you brings something so uniquely you to my life. I treasure that. I treasure how individual you are, how loving you are, how fun you are, how many smiles and laughs you’ve given me over the years, and I feel so fortunate to have all of that with you. I am blessed beyond measure for knowing you, for having you in my life, and for continuing to get to spend time with you when I can. No matter the distance it seems we always manage to pick up where we left off, be that a year ago or yesterday, and I am honored by that, by your presence in my life. I feel you with me every day and I’m so very thankful for you.
The pups… I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but they are so important to me and every day I’m so loved by them, and grateful to them for their little selves in my life. They are my home as well, and I am so lucky to have them. They love without condition, without pretense, without judgement or agenda. They’re always excited to see me, even if I’ve only been outside for a moment, and they are always completely genuine. I love them more than I can measure, and am so very thankful for them. They bring a joy to my life, our lives, that can’t be measured.
I always say the only thing in life that truly matters are the people we love and who love us. I mean this. Everything else is set dressing, though nature, in all it’s glory, is a wonder and something I’m also grateful for every day. To that end I’d like to include the following poem by e.e. cummings. He’s my favorite poet, and I’m humbled by and grateful for his words, words that have helped, at times, me to get through periods of struggle. Words that have at times helped me to better explain the world to myself. This is one of my favorites of his… and it pretty much sums up the rest of it, the rest of what I’m grateful for…
i thank You God for most this amazing
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)