WWhat happens when the words spoken on Capitol Hill make us shiver? Amanda Gorman’s luminous poem The Hill We Climb was directed at Joe Biden and “the world.” Opening poems are a devilishly difficult genre, only tried six times since the JF Kennedy ceremony. Yet these “occasional” poems play an important cultural role, especially in our time when no public rhetoric and few common values can be taken for granted, as the poet addresses and mends the damaged foundations of the state itself.
A dizzying sense of history and solidarity permeates Gorman’s debut collection. Part elegy, part documentary record, and part witness statement, Call us what we bring is first and foremost “a letter to the world,” a phrase borrowed from Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, Gorman’s poetry puts immense pressure on our present moment, engaging in an archeology of our past and the preservation of our future. He urges us to review the checkered history of intersectional injustices and reevaluate our fragile species, systems, and planet, mired in pandemic, personal pain, and public grievance.
“What happened to us,” Gorman writes, “happened through us.” One of the most disturbing things about your book is its withdrawal from the first person singular. “I” exists in moderation, peripherally. By contrast, the all-inclusive trio “we,” “us,” and “our” appear more than 1,500 times in his shapeshifting poems, a rare feat in the age of overwhelming individuality. Gorman’s affirmative chorus us echoes the memorial dream of Martin Luther King and the utopian lyricism of John Lennon, but his music is also inspired by the new dimension opened up by pioneering poets such as Elizabeth Alexander, Anne Carson and Tracy K. Smith. She challenges Walt Whitman: “I am great. I contain multitudes. “In his book, we are the ones who enclose crowds, and a shared vision, pain and responsibility, since he affirms that” This book is awake. / This book is a wake. / Because what is a record if not a reckoning? “
In fact, call us what we carry he is well aware of the complex layers of human history and is hauntingly original in his poetic form. In a poignant sequence, The Soldier (or Plummer), Gorman excavates archival materials to retrieve the voice of Corporal Plummer, an African-American who served in France in World War I during the Spanish flu. Overlaying his typed words onto the scanned and empty pages of Plummer’s diary, Gorman evokes racial discord, military violence, and “charged / cough silence.”
In addition to keeping history alive, Gorman puts his finger on the pulse of the current pandemic, reporting on the ground the subtle shifts in human sociability brought on by our new age of anxiety. Mapping “every sneeze and sob”, he realizes that “Every cough seems like a catastrophe, / Every close person a potential danger”. As the world counts deaths and we retreat into ourselves, Gorman challenges the ever-present narrative of erasure and instead focuses on the power of collective memory. His poems loosen a centrifugal elegiac force that surrounds the individual and insist on bringing us closer, since he points out that “Some distances, if allowed to grow, / are simply the greatest proximities”. On the politics of wearing masks, for example, their silent and attractive lines describe our ultra-fine facial movements when they smile behind the masks; how “we scale our cheeks, / bone to bone, / our eyes wrinkle / delicately like rice paper.” She concludes that “Our mask is not a veil, but a sight. / What we are, if not what we see in another ”. This is poetry brimming with community appreciation and empathy.
In Monomyth he reshapes another medium, a heroic epic about Imax, turning the pandemic and the end of Trump’s presidency into a saga of irresponsibility and disaster, written with the satirical precision of Armando Iannucci or Michaela Coel. Gorman is an absorbing, resisting, and recreating scholar of vocal, textual, and etymological legacies. Without overloading himself with references, his poems allude to multi-layered sources. We find Rihanna, Drake, Shakespeare, Homer, Plato, health economics data, a Dictionary of English Etymology, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As she says, “Heredity is not transmitted in direct memory, but through through an indirect count. ”
Directly and indirectly, pain as ubiquitous as light holds Gorman’s book together. “Pain has its own grammar,” he writes. By addressing “both public and private pain,” the book does not exaggerate the language of trauma, but rather seeks to heal and repair. Such a recovery project runs the risk of being seen as a consoling “wisdom literature”. At just 23 years old, Gorman is not afraid of big words and gestures, but articulates loss and pain in a unique grammar that is self-aware without being inner. There is endless joke and bluntness in the music of his pun: “America, / How to sing / Our name, Singular, / Signed, Singed ”. There is also a deep and rebellious meditation on contemporary culture framed throughout the book through the branching hierarchy of trees, in which the Darwinian metaphor is used to question the vertical organization of our society when faced with human inequality and the climate emergency. “It is the bearing,” says the poet, “That makes the memory mutual.” In Call Us What We Carry, Gorman has written a mnemonic symphony of hope and solidarity in the face of the “fading meaning” of our time, speaking eloquently with “the lip of tomorrow.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism