Tuesday, January 20, 2009

MY "INAUGURAL" POEM

In a half hour, Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. Elizabeth Alexander will be reading the inaugural poem. There's a good profile and sample poems at poets.org. I liked her work, what I read of it; consider Blues. May she rise to the enormity of the occasion.

On the day after his election, I wrote this poem, my first -- and perhaps last -- political polemic. I figured Now Is The Time (to echo the President Elect, and in turn, MLK) to post it. Some notes follow.

BARACK


I raise a glass to my TV screens, to this liquid digital on which I draft, this e-waste gold beneath my fingertips. Tinctures appear on the horizon, glints, facets…

…to this man of fine feature and earthen skin, whose name breathes Africa, whose breath is fragrant with the smoke and spices of Nyang’oma Kogelo, Wichita, Honolulu, Jakarta, New York, Boston, Chicago. At last, one of all of us! Intelligent, pensive, poised & sure … who speaks poetry, who knows the nuances of law.

May he truly listen!
May our ravening need be appeased!
May we stop melting our polar ice caps!
May we wrestle our economy from the reckless rich and return it to the people!
May health care be guaranteed for every citizen!
May war criminals be brought to justice!
May extraordinary renditions be canceled by this rendition!
May the guns that bristle at him not fire!
Now, may the real work begin.

– Nov. 5, 2008

What exultation, that day! Although polls and pundits had forecast the results, almost no-one could really believe it would happen until it happened. And I think the whole planet was taken by surprise, by the power of the psychic sea-change. (At least those in the position to take notice at all.)

Credit should go where it is due: A number of the invocations (from polar ice caps to justice, to be exact) are drawn from “Pinch Me”, an article by Michael Moore that appeared that same morning on michaelmoore.com

Frankly, I was very tempted to include this poem -- or rather, a previous version of it -- in my forthcoming collection, Passenger Flight. Something in me rues the fact that I chose not to. Political poems, though, have a short shelf life; by the time the book is published, it could well be dated or contradicted and make me look and feel pretty foolish -- although millions of people would share in that feeling.

I have every confidence that Barack Obama will be a great President. But, he could disappoint. Even at the time, I had this line, second to the end:

May bunker bombs emblazoned with Obama not fall on families in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran!

I felt truly uneasy about his hawkish pronouncements RE those countries during that campaign, although tactically, during that campaign, they were pre-emptive of Republican scare mongering should there have have been a terrorist attack. Like Michael Moore, I hope that this is a strategic campaign promise that is deliberately discarded as soon as it's convenient.

That line I've left aside because, well, it doesn't suit this day; besides it runs counter to the emotional thrust of the poem.

More later... the inauguration is about to begin.

****

I enjoyed Alexander's poem -- dignified it was, and lyrical -- although the response to her concentrated metaphors was understandably subdued. Perhaps the audience had taken in enough with Obama's inaugural speech, which had just preceded it. Some lines from the poem: "In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made. Any sentence begun, on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp. Praise song for walking forward in that light."

Rev. Joseph E. Lowry, the old civil rights activist who followed her with the Benediction, got a greater rise when he broke into an unexpected, playful rap poetry of his own: "Lord...we ask you to help us pray for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead man, and when white will embrace what is right." That brought a smile to everyone's face, including, notably, Obama's.

... back to my own poem. In a way I'm glad I'm not including it in my collection. Part of the problem with it is not just the sloganeering -- which irks me as much as it gave me pleasure to do -- but that I write as if I were American. Clearly I'm not. Obama is not our leader, and it is not exactly our economy; here we have universal health care. Appropriating Michael Moore's words was frankly an act of desperation, to finish what I had begun. But that I could write that way, and that the poem has been well received by a couple of (of course, small) Canadian poetry audiences and poet friends, reflects how we in what Jon Stewart has called "that weird sidecar of a country" identify with that charismatic colossus south of our border.

Much of the darkness in my book -- the focus on suicide bombings, the culture of surveillance, torture at Abu Graib, the decadence of the ultra rich -- was particularly pertinent during the dire Bush years, when all but one or two of the prose poems were written. It would be good to include, near the end of the book, something like this poem, to indicate, perhaps, that a page has been turned. But I believe it will take time to find language and a tack to authentically express my response as an international citizen.

George Elliott Clarke, who was kind enough to write an excellent blurb for my book, said to me the other day, "Politicians campaign in poetry, but they govern in prose." Now that the poetry's done, I feel the opportunity to celebrate the victory has already waned. It seems wisest to wait and see how the prose unfolds.