In debut poetry collection, Amanda Gorman looks at America today through its past
How does a person's history intersect with that of a community? And what can a communal past teach us about survival, love, and carrying it all forward?
In her debut collection Call Us What We Carry, Amanda Gorman, who this year — at 22 — became the youngest ever presidential inaugural poet, reckons with America's present, particularly with the pandemic. Through the lens of the country's history, she shows us the path toward healing.
The book's introductory poem asks, "& what exactly are we supposed to be doing?" Already it claims that the pages to come will act as a record, a time capsule, a testimony — and "the poet, the preserver" of everything good and bad. The answer to the question of the future, then, has already been handed to us by the book's title. Name your history, Gorman says, and in turn name yourself.
"This book is a message in a bottle," she writes, later devoting an entire section to nautical poems. Man is a "wreck" of a vessel — think shipwreck — and our bodies simply carry us through the deep current of "news" and "funerals." In the poem "Call Us," she writes, "At times over half of our bodies / Are not our own," because what we carry is "A country, A continent, A planet." Just as more than half our bodies are water, memory itself is a body of water, linked directly to the collective living-ness of this Earth.
By affirming this link between memory and water, between body and country, Gorman points to the importance of remembering what came before us. Like water, memory ebbs and flows, and like a country, our body responds to the current.
In one instance of learning from the past, the poet writes about the Essex — an American whaling ship that was stranded at sea for months after being struck by a sperm whale in 1820. Written in the shape of a fish, one line goes, "Only when we're drowning / do we understand how fierce our feet / can kick." Eight of 20 crewmen of the Essex survived.
Similarly, as the coronavirus spread across America, many of us were thrown into moments of chaos and uncertainty. But we held on, day by day, hoping to come out the other end. Gorman's striking poems about the pandemic sing directly of this optimism. We may have turned into "Zoombies" and held loved ones only through our screens, but Gorman writes:
Our grief, no matter how insurmountable it may feel, is what "anchors us" to everything our ancestors survived. Continually, grief helps us remember. "Trauma is like a season, deep & dependable, a force we / board our windows against," writes Gorman in "Pre-Memory." And this trauma is not a personal, but rather collective, grief. "We posit that pre-memory is the phenomenon in which we remember that which we are still experiencing," she writes. Just as those before us remembered, and told us stories, we will face this moment and share it with those after us.
And what exactly are we trying to remember? A section of the book is filled with erasure poems, where Gorman works through records from the 1918 pandemic and its collision with World War I. Among other documents of that time — letters from a nurse, from a child in a Jewish neighborhood, and from a man whose family ran a funeral home accompany the diary entries of an African American army corporal. This is how the poet brings us the past through "the voices that have always existed but have been exiled from history & the imagination." She explains how "warfare" and "pandemic" are the same – both fated to keep us apart:
Gorman also references America's history of segregation, talking about how separation has always been used as a power tool. She writes, "Never forget that to be alone / Has always been a price for some / & a privilege for others." She lists the spaces African Americans have historically been kept from, but then reminds us, "Yet / here we are. Still walking. Still kept."
Just like in 1918, today's pandemic has taken those with the least privilege. Many who couldn't afford to isolate, fought and died. And just as America's racist history had white supremacists choosing the "poison" of hate to segregate, Black people today continue to face violence and inequity across the country, as Gorman references. We lean into past grief to allow our bodies to embrace what they have carried over to today. And that's how we learn that hate, again and again, did not win.
Ultimately, Call Us What We Carry points to this inherent hope. In "Closure," Gorman writes, "To begin again / Isn't to go backwards, / but to decide to go." Looking at our history shows us what our bodies are made of – and that collective memory of strength re-energizes us in our darkest moments. The book ends on Gorman's breakout inaugural poem "The Hill We Climb," in which she says, "Then love becomes our legacy, / And change, our children's birthright." We start by taking that next breath, the next step.
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