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Minute Five

Day five of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life—

 

 

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free

song by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas

 

 

I wish I knew how

It would feel to be free

I wish I could break

All the chains holding me

I wish I could say

All the things that I should say

Say ’em loud, say ’em clear

For the whole round world to hear

 

I wish I could share

All the love that’s in my heart

Remove all the bars

That keep us apart

I wish you could know

Well I wish I could be

Like a bird in the sky

How sweet it would be

If I found I could fly

Oh I’d soar to the sun

And look down at the sea

 

Then I’d sing ’cause I know, yea

Then I’d sing ’cause I know, yea

Then I’d sing ’cause I know

I’d know how it feels

Oh I know how it feels to be free

Yea yea! Oh, I know how it feels

 

Yes I know, oh, I know

How it feels

How it feels

To be free, Lord, Lord, Lord

 

What it means to be me

Then you’d see and agree

That every man should be free

 

I wish I could give

All I’m longin’ to give

I wish I could live

Like I’m longin’ to live

I wish I could do

All the things that I can do

And though I’m way over due

I’d be starting anew

 

 

“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is a song not a poem, but who doesn’t need some music right now? And this is one great song. Reading the lyrics, listening to it sung by the incomparable Nina Simone, I think about how I’ve always been allowed to feel free . . . and how others have not, others who have to keep their guard up, modulate their voices, change their hair texture, restrain their anger at authorities who don’t respect them, train their children to keep safe in ways white parents don’t have to.

 

Maybe this moment is here—

 

I wish I could say

All the things that I should say

Say ’em loud, say ’em clear

For the whole round world to hear

 

*

Among the many things I never knew about the Civil Rights movement of the 60s was that “I Wish I Knew How” was one of its anthems. The song’s history mirrors the arc of the song itself—it begins sweet and swinging and builds to soul-moving power. Jazz composer Billy Taylor originally wrote it as an instrumental in 1952, inspired when his daughter came home from school singing a spiritual, but he didn’t record it till 1963. The lyrics came later, written in collaboration with Dick Dallas. The instrumental version was used for a British television show that reviewed movies, and a modified version was eventually used for, yes, you guessed it, a Coke commercial.

 

The song found its audience when Nina Simone recorded it in 1967. Simone’s earliest musical training was in church (she played her first piano solo in church at age 2 1/2, surprising even her mother, a Methodist preacher) and she brings out the gospel flavor of the song, sometimes even adding call-and-response. The song comes alive in her styling in a way no subsequent cover does. And there are a lot of covers, from John Denver’s anodyne version (and I like Denver, but boy, this isn’t good) to John Legend’s.

 

Here’s Simone’s recorded version

 

 

Here’s a jazzier version she sang at Montreux in 1976. Watch through to the end—her performance is so emotional—see how she hits those piano keys—you’ll get the shivers.

 

There’s one more version to watch and listen to. This one is from her performance in a documentary short called Nina. Link here, and scroll down to the video. Her improvised lyrics, her unexpected and fabulous dancing, her white pantsuit. . . this is one for the ages.

 

Note:  as of last night, poems for minutes two, three and four are still hanging in there.

minutes three and four aligned

Minute Four

Day four of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

What Do We Do—Now

by Ellen Hagan

 

 

—after Gwendolyn Brooks

 

We mourn, we bless,

we blow, we wail, we

wind—down, we sip,

we spin, we blind, we

bend, bow & hem. We

hip, we blend, we bind,

we shake, we shine,

shine. We lips & we

teeth, we praise & protest.

We document & we

drama. We demand &

we flow, fold & hang

loose. We measure &

we moan, mourn & whine

low. & we live, and we

breathe. & some of the time,

we don’t.

 

Tonight, I am here. Here

& tired. Here & awake,

sure, & alive. Yes here &

still, still here, still & here

& still awake & still still

alive.

 

 

Most of us read Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” in high school, and if your education was like mine, the lens through which we read it was her use of the vernacular—

 

We real cool. We

Left school. We

 

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

 

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

 

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

 

Reading it again after so many years, my focus is pulled to the last lines, and I shudder. All the life in the poem, all the bragging, all the rhythm and it just comes down to one thing:  We/die soon.

 

Poet Ellen Hagan riffs on Brooks’ poem in “What We Do—Now.” Hagan’s poem is written in an aftermath. The aftermath of loss. Perhaps the aftermath of the deaths in Brooks’ poems. The poem’s title “What We Do—Now” can be read as a question born of exhaustion and grief. What do we do now?  

 

The list that follows is exhausting, a litany of thirty-one verbs (and some nouns used as verbs) in the long, rapid-fire first stanza. Mourning is listed twice. Mourning is driving all the other activity.

 

The second stanza takes a breath. It’s enough, the speaker suggests, just to be alive at this moment, to breathe, to be awake, to survive.

 

I go back to these lines

 

. . . and we

breathe. & some of the time,

we don’t.

 

and I think of George Floyd trying to breathe and Eric Garner trying to breathe and all the men and women we’ve never heard of who were just trying to breathe. And our collective breath as a nation, as a world, ragged now and anxious, wishing that simple act could not be taken away from the powerless.

 

 

Ellen Hagan is a writer, educator, activist and performer. She lives in New York City where she directs the poetry program at the DreamYard Project.

 

 

Note:  I was wrong when I said on the first day of this project that there would probably never be a protest in this peaceable park. One was beginning just as I left.

 

 

It was the second day of protest for these young people, and they were expecting dozens more to arrive. Later that evening a protest march gathered at City Hall to walk to Woodward Boulevard, the artery connecting the city of Detroit to its tonier suburbs.

 

Found this on my walk home—

 

 

 

 

Minute Three

Day three of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

4/30/92 for Rodney King

by Lucille Clifton

 

so

the body

of one black man

is rag and stone

is mud

and blood

the body of one

black man

contains no life

worth loving

so the body

of one black man

is nobody

mama

mama

mamacita

is there no value

in this skin

mama

mama

if we are nothing

why

should we spare

the neighborhood

mama

mama

who will be next and

why should we save

the pictures

 

 

Lucille Clifton’s “4/30/92 for Rodney King” looks like someone kicked it in at the sides, pounded it to thinness like a piece of meat. The dehumanizing of the black body in the poem’s form and imagery (the body/of one black man/ is rag and stone/is mud and blood) is broken up by a most human response to distress—mama/mama/mamacita. Seven times that voice cries out for help.

 

Rodney King, for those too young to remember or who may not even have been born yet, was beaten by police following a car chase in Los Angeles in March 1991. For fifteen minutes the unarmed King was kicked, stomped on, beaten with batons and tasered by four police officers. The beating only came to light because a man happened to film it from a nearby balcony. The tape was sent to a news station after the LAPD showed no interest in it.

 

In April of 1992, when the four offending officers were acquitted of using excessive force, a five-day riot broke out in the city. Fifty people were killed, 2,000 injured, and over one billion was lost in property. Rodney King was both ridiculed and hailed for a statement he made on television asking for calm during the riots: “I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? Can we, can we get along?”

 

For a more complete account of the beating and riots, link here.

 

If you have the stomach for it after all the violence we’ve witnessed over the past few days, watch the video of the beating here. Low-quality and grainy as it is, the film shows Rodney King attempt to rise, get beaten down, roll over in pain, get rolled back by the police for more beating, then lie still as the beating continues. Just a body to those police officers. A man to anyone with eyes.

 

Clifton’s closing questions, unfortunately, have the ring of prophecy.

 

who will be next and

why should we save

the pictures

 

*

 

A brief biography of Clifton from a previous post:

 

Lucille Clifton was born in New York in 1936.  Her father was a steelworker who sexually abused her, and her mother was a laundress and gifted poet with little formal education. At age sixteen Clifton attended Howard University as a drama major.  She finished her studies in New York.

 

 

She had six children with her husband Fred, a professor at the University of Buffalo.  She was the poet laureate of my home state of Maryland where she eventually settled. She won the National Book Award and was the first African-American woman to win the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize. She had a separate career as a writer of children’s books and the most unusual career for a famous poet I’ve ever heard of:  Jeopardy show champion.  She died in 2010 at age 73.

 

*

Note:  The “Minute Two” poem I put up yesterday is still taped to its marble orb in the park—

 

 

 

 

 

Minute Two

Day two, commemorating the second minute of the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

Let Them Not Say

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Let them not say:   we did not see it.

We saw.

 

Let them not say:   we did not hear it.

We heard.

 

Let them not say:    they did not taste it.

We ate, we trembled.

 

Let them not say:   it was not spoken, not written.

We spoke,

we witnessed with voices and hands.

 

Let them not say:    they did nothing.

We did not-enough.

 

Let them say, as they must say something:

 

A kerosene beauty.

It burned.

 

Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,

read by its light, praised,

and it burned.

 

 

Instead of we came, we saw, we conquered, poet Jane Hirshfield posits a different course:  we saw, we heard, we tasted, we witnessed, and we did not-enough. Admitting failure instead of bragging about conquest. That’s the way forward.

 

Today at the square the poem I left yesterday had been removed. And it rained last night so today’s poem is probably gone as well. But I hope at least some of the people in the park wondered what I was doing and read the poems after I left.

 

 

 

A brief biography of Hirshfield from an earlier post:

Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years. She’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.

 

 

 

Minute One

To Christine, Catherine, Yen-Fang, Megan, Donny and Molly:  I love your submissions and can’t wait to WE INTERRUPT YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING something’s come up TO BRING YOU THIS BREAKING NEWS

 

[breaking your heart news]

 

So I can’t post them right now.

 

Just doesn’t feel right.

 

Give me nine days. Nine days, one for each of George Floyd’s last moments. Nine days and I’ll post all the wonderful poems and creative commentary you sent.

 

Nine days, and I pray our nation will be in a better spot.

 

Each of those nine days I’ll be posting a poem. I’m going to put all of them in a downtown square of my little town in suburban Detroit. A peaceable downtown square where there are no protests and probably never will be.

 

*

Day one, minute one . . .

 

 

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes

 

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.)

 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

 

(It never was America to me.)

 

*  * *  *  *

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

 

 

The first poem I left at the square was Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.” I cut out the middle section (the complete poem is at the end of this post) because people are more apt to read a shorter than longer poem and this needs to be read—

 

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

 

 

and this—

 

 

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

 

The poem holds together outrage and hope, and Hughes keeps them in equal balance, a feat in the face of grave injustice.

 

 

Here’s a bio of Langston Hughes from an earlier post:

 

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Missouri to a family whose ancestors included slaves and slave owners.  His parents divorced when he was young, and his father moved to Cuba and Mexico to escape racism and to get away from other black Americans, who he had come to dislike.  Hughes, on the other hand, embraced black culture, especially the lives of people he described as “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.” Later in his career he was criticized for “parading” working-class black characters who spoke in dialect, but his portrayals of those characters in poems, novels, and plays earned him the unofficial title of “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”

 

Before he found success as the first African-American to earn a living from his writing, Hughes worked as a sailor, a doorman, a waiter, a cook and a truck farmer.  He attended Columbia University and graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where his classmate was Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

  

He published two autobiographies, several children’s books and wrote a popular column for the Chicago Defender for twenty years.  He died at age 65 of prostate cancer.

 

*

 

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes

 

 

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.)

 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

 

(It never was America to me.)

 

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

 

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

 

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

 

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

 

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

 

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

 

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

 

The free?

 

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

 

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

 

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

 

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve called myself Poem Elf these past ten years but the fact is I am a Faux Elf, at least where anatomy is concerned. Elves are little folk. I am not. Cue today’s guest posters Isabelle and Ava of Maryland. They are not only elf-sized, they are elf-cute and e(l)fing adorable.

 

The fact that they are also my grand nieces has no bearing on my assessment of their (darling! sweetalicious! kewpie-dumpscious!) pixie qualities.

 

*

A note from their mother, my niece and goddaughter Tricia:

We had fun poem elf-ing around our neighborhood! The girls each chose a poem from a book you gave them.

 

The funny thing was that Isabelle was scared the police would come because we have been telling the girls we aren’t allowed to go to parks right now but hopefully soon when “the Corinna virus is gone.” And the orange plastic fencing intimidated her I think. As a result, Ava went first (with no problem) and after much reassuring, Isabelle agreed to do it too. One of my girls does not like to get in trouble—the other is a little rebel!

 

Isabelle says “I love ice cream.” We chose to put it on a bench in the park two blocks from our house. When we got there, she said she really misses going there. 

 

Ava says: “I love swings!” We can’t wait to get back to our parks.

image0

 

So far Isabelle has not been arrested. Will keep you posted.

 

Isabelle and Ava, happy weekend! Thank you for helping out your old auntie!

Today’s guest poster is my sister Ceci. Ceci is the oldest of eleven and I am number nine, so she has a history with the family that I know nothing about. For instance, I never knew a beloved book of my childhood, a book that seemed like it was part of the furniture, belonging to everyone, was originally a sweet gift to her from my dad.

 

Thanks, Ceci! The playground is all yours—

 

The Swing

by Robert Louis Stevenson

 

How do you like to go up in a swing,

Up in the air so blue?

Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing

Ever a child can do!

 

Up in the air and over the wall,

Till I can see so wide,

Rivers and trees and cattle and all

Over the countryside—

 

Till I look down on the garden green,

Down on the roof so brown—

Up in the air I go flying again,

Up in the air and down!

 

 

This is not a profound poem but it reaches way back into my childhood. When I was six year old, I received “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson for Christmas.

 

My father used to have us memorize poems and I think this was the very first poem I ever memorized and I have never forgotten it. I loved the feeling of swinging up so high in the air with the wind blowing through my hair and leaning backwards to face the blue sky.

 

I recited this poem to my children when we would go to the park, and now to my grandchildren. Whenever I say it, I’m brought back to that happy place of childhood. Sadly all the parks are closed now because of Covid-19, so no more pleasant swinging  “up in the air and over the wall” for a while. I taped the poem on a pillar with yellow tape forbidding children from that glorious pastime. Hopefully this won’t last long and the swings will soon be filled with the sounds of laughter as children sail through the air on their swings.

 

 

Post Memorial Day weekend, post family barbeques, post trips to the boardwalk and camping ground, post online shopping for holiday sales—post fun, in other words— let’s ruminate on loss. It’s what we were supposed to be doing anyway.

 

Yep, there goes my inner Debbie Downer. She rears her gray head often these pandemic times.

 

Fortunately for you, today’s guest poem elf, Patti Russo of Indiana, is the opposite of Debbie Downer (whoever that may be—Bettie Buoyant? Cherrie Cheerful?) even as she takes up a difficult subject. Patti has paired two poems to consider loss and life after loss, and writes with an empathy and perspective that really does bring light to the darkness. Thanks, Patti!

 

*

 

Thanks so much for allowing me the privilege of being an honorary Assistant to the Regional Poem Elf “on location” here in beautiful Bloomington, IN! I chose these two poems, which I clipped from our Sunday paper months ago. I’ve had them taped to our kitchen cupboards ever since! I love them both for so many reasons.

 

 

 

The Thing Is

by Ellen Bass

 

to love life, to love it even

when you have no stomach for it

and everything you’ve held dear

crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,

your throat filled with the silt of it.

When grief sits with you, its tropical heat

thickening the air, heavy as water

more fit for gills than lungs;

when grief weights you down like your own flesh

only more of it, an obesity of grief,

you think, How can a body withstand this?

Then you hold life like a face

between your palms, a plain face,

no charming smile, no violet eyes,

and you say, yes, I will take you

I will love you, again.

 

 

This poem talks about learning to love life again after a tremendous loss. . . and in this case, death. By now, most of us have likely experienced a significant death/loss in our lives. . . I know I have. After losing my Dad, then a few years later, my older sister, it was, for a time, difficult to remember that I could still allow myself to love life even in the midst of my sorrow.

 

Sadly, I’ve also witnessed several dear friends who have experienced the MOST unimaginable loss: the loss of their child. I have watched as each moved through the grieving process into his/her eventual healing. . . it is long, painful & arduous journey. It is a beautiful thing to witness someone who has lost SO deeply, and yet has the courage and grace to learn to love the world again. . . only differently now, as a person who will never again feel completely whole. I am both in awe of and humbled by their willingness to take a chance on love and life again. . . to “hold life like a face between your palms. . . and say, yes, I will take you. I will love you, again.”

 

I placed this poem on a soon-to-bloom peony bush just inside the entrance to Rose Hill cemetery. . . just a few blocks from our home.

 

*

 

 

Origami

by Joyce Sutphen

 

It starts

with a blank sheet,

an undanced floor,

 

air where no sound

erases the silence.

As soon as

 

you play the first note,

write down a word,

step onto the empty stage,

 

you’ve moved closer

to the creature inside.

Remember—

 

a square

can end up as frog, cardinal,

mantis, or fish.

 

You can make

what you want,

do what you wish.

 

This poem speaks so beautifully to the possibilities before each of us despite the challenges life thrusts before us. . . yes, even a pandemic. I love the notion that each of us is “a blank sheet, an undanced floor, air where no sound erases the silence” and it is up to us to “make what you want, do what you wish” in order to come closer “to the creature inside.” We are a blank slate, a flat, shapeless piece of paper that we need to fold into being. It is empowering to know that each of us has the capacity to “will” ourselves into becoming the person we were meant to be.

 

I placed this poem, along with an origami paper crane, in a beautiful planter of pansies just inside Sample Gates, the official entrance to Indiana University. Coincidentally, clusters of Indiana University graduates, in full cap & gown, bursting with promise & possibility, were taking photos with family & friends when I arrived.

 

Just one addendum to “Origami”: I meant to note that those graduates did not march across the stage to receive their diplomas. . . there was no fanfare, pomp or circumstance. Like everything else in the age of COVID19, milestones big and small are diminished to a rather anti-climactic virtual tribute. Still, there they were. . . laughing, celebrating, pondering the possibilities for their lives. . . possibilities which remain limitless even in the face a global pandemic.

 

 

All the way from Prague, my youngest daughter Anne Marie spreads the Poem Elf spirit. As you can see, she loves her adopted city; as you can’t see and wouldn’t know, she also loves the word “romantic.” (See her commentary.) We have a running family joke about an awkward card she gave me as years ago in which she wrote about our “fun romantic times together.” (She thought romantic referred to affection and snuggling.) Her understanding of the word has since righted itself, but her chosen street and poem remind me of her open heart, how much I miss her, away now for so long.

Anne Marie notes that František Halas is a Czech poet from a working class family (1901-1949). Short life. I hope he got the love he dreamed of.

 

Confession
by František Halas

Touched by all that love is
I draw closer toward you
Saddened by all that love is
I run from you

Surprised by all that love is
I remain alert in stillness
Hurt by all that love is
I yearn for tenderness

Defeated by all that love is
at the truthful mouth of the night
Forsaken by all that love is
I will grow toward you.

 

 

This is one of my favorite streets in Prague—it’s romantic and exciting and I can’t wait to show it to everyone I love at some point in my life. I always see couples sitting here, so I picked a love poem by a Czech poet. I can’t choose which line grabs me the most because it all rings true in a simple, retrospective way. “Surprised by all that love is I remain alert in stillness” is where I stand now, wondering who it is I’ll bring here.

Congrats from Bridget

It’s graduation day here at Poem Elf! Our guest poster, Chicago writer and editor Bridget Gamble, chose Dean Young’s “Commencement” to celebrate.

 

Unlike Bridget, I am not a lover of graduation speeches, having sat through more than my fair share of follow-your-dreams and follow-this-bit-of-whimsical-advice exhortations.

 

But I do share her heartbreak for the millions of graduates denied ceremonies this year. Thanks, Bridget, for a timely reminder.

 

[NOTE:  If you enjoy Bridget’s writing as much as I do, you can subscribe to her weekly newsletter whelmed at www.bridgetgamble.com.]

 

And now to the podium, Ms. Gamble  . . .

 

*

 

 

Commencement

by Dean Young

 

I love you for shattering.

Someone has to. Just as someone

has to announce inadvertently

the end of grief or spring’s

splurge even as the bureaucracy’s

spittoon overflows. Someone has to come out

the other end of the labyrinth

saying, What’s the big deal?

Someone has to spend all day staring

at the data from outer space

or separating the receipts

or changing sheets in sour room after room.

I like it when the end of the toilet paper

is folded into a point.

I like napkins folded into swans

because I like wiping my mouth on swans.

Matriculates, come back from the dance floor

to sip at the lacrimal glands of chaos,

a god could be forgiven

for eating you, you’ve been such angels

just not very good ones.

You’ve put your tongue

into the peanut canister

of your best friend’s girlfriend’s mom.

You’ve taken a brown bag lunch

on which was writ another’s name.

All night it snows a blue snow

like the crystallized confessions

you’ve wrung from phantoms

even though it is you wearing the filched necklace,

your rages splitting the concrete like dandelions.

All that destruction from a ball of fluff!

There’s nothing left but hope.

 

 

I’ve been thinking about all the graduation ceremonies that won’t be happening this spring, and all the speeches that will never be. I may be in the minority, but I really love commencement speeches. I get goose bumps just reading them online. When my poetry professor in college, Danny Khalastchi, read this Dean Young poem to my class at the end of the spring semester during my junior year, it felt just as special to me as an actual commencement address. The opening line doesn’t seem to belong in a poem; it’s too risky, too cliché. But Dean gets away with it when he makes you laugh with lines about toilet paper and peanut canisters and not very good angels. Then suddenly, that last line—another one that only Dean Young can make feel fresh—knocks the wind out of you completely, just like you’d hope a commencement speech would.

 

Because I live near DePaul’s campus, I thought that was a good home for this poem. On a socially distant walk with my friend Casey, one of my best friends from college, we passed a stoplight that has an “I Closed Wolski’s” sticker on it. Wolski’s is a Milwaukee bar that we fell in love with (and managed to close once or twice) as college kids. So Dean’s poem belonged there, I knew. My wish is that someone experiencing grief in this pandemic—about a canceled graduation, or about anything—stumbles on it when they’re waiting for the walk signal, and feels some hope. Someone has to, right?