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2020 Elections

Verse for a Bruised Country

A guide to poetry that can help us through Election Day.




Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

Whether or not you’ve already voted, your most difficult task this Election Day may be to avoid biting your nails down to the nub while the ballots are tallied in Florida, Pennsylvania and other battlegrounds. There is no older guide in the art of standing fast than poetry. Reams of poems, new and old, speak to our current moment — and can even help us transcend it.

As Langston Hughes writes, regardless of the faults of a country capable of brutality and wracked with division, “America will be.”

Take Evie Shockley’s historical poem, “women’s voting rights at one hundred (but who’s counting?),” co-commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and the New York Philharmonic as part of Project 19. This poem reminds us of white suffragists’ troubled record on race. In it, Ida B. Wells, the Black investigative journalist, defies last-minute attempts by her white sisters in arms to exclude her from an Illinois march and gets “right into formation, as planned.”

“One vote,” Shockley writes in the poem’s opening stanza, “is an opinion/with a quiet legal force” —

a barely audible beep
in the local traffic, & just
a plashless drop of mercury
in the national thermometer.
but a collectivity of votes
/a flock of votes, a pride of votes,
a murder of votes/ can really
make some noise.

A “murder of votes”? In Shockley’s poem “murder” slyly follows “flock” and “pride” as if votes were crows, as if this “barely audible” act were a life and death matter. And isn’t it — and hasn’t it –often been so? She is reminding us of the blood women–and Black voters—have shed to achieve the franchise.

*   *   *

A murderous energy runs through the late Thomas Lux’s absurdist and witty poem, “The People of the Other Village.” The Trump era has ushered in a subgenre of books on political polarization, but in 25 lines Lux’s poem from the late 1990s expertly dissects the destructive dynamics of tribalism. The people of the other village, as it turns out,

hate the people of this village
and would nail our hats
to our heads for refusing in their presence to remove them
or staple our hands to our foreheads
for refusing to salute them
if we did not hurt them first: mail them packages of rats,
mix their flour at night with broken glass.
We do this, they do that.
They peel the larynx from one of our brothers’ throats.
We devein one of their sisters.
The quicksand pits they built were good.
Our amputation teams were better.
We trained some birds to steal their wheat.
They sent to us exploding ambassadors of peace.
They do this, we do that.

Further down in the poem, Lux describes what finally causes visible suffering to the other villagers. It’s not the “amputation teams” and other acts of mutilation. It’s the mockery: “We parodied the way they dance/which did cause pain.” Sound familiar?

*   *   *

But perhaps dark humor isn’t your thing. You’re feeling delicate and in need of uplift, a need for a poetry of solidarity and reconciliation. The best poetry—like America itself—doesn’t always deliver uplift, unfortunately. Langston Hughes probably said this best in “Let America be America Again.”

Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Hughes’ disillusionment is not only that of a grandson of slaves. He casts his lot with poor whites, Native Americans “driven from the land” and the “immigrant clutching the hope I seek.” Each group — or voting bloc?– finds “the same old stupid plan/Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.” And yet toward the end of the poem, Hughes reaches in the direction of optimism.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Personally, I need concrete images– the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water–to keep me tethered during times of tumult. So I love the way that the poet Fatimah Asghar balances her whopper of a title with musings about bee life that are both fanciful and deadly serious. “I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What We’ve Done to the Earth” is the title and first line of a poem originally published by the Academy of American Poets.

so I count my hopes: the bumble bees
are making a comeback, one snug tight
in a purple flower I passed to get to you;

At the end of the poem, she muses about a butterfly that was caught by the “you” in the poem. “I asked if it died. You say/you like to think it lived a long life. yes, it lived a long life.” There it is: a tentative Election Day kind of optimism. Like Hughes, she’s willing to admit hopefulness into the world. Yes, the butterfly lived a long life. Yes, as Hughes writes, regardless of the faults of a country capable of brutality and wracked with division, “America will be.”

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main

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