Each day from January 7 through January 20, Rumpus Original Poems will feature work in response to the coming presidential inauguration. Today’s poem is from Julie Marie Wade.
Psalm in the Spirit of an Inaugural Poem
America, I’m going to make you a mixtape, so you’ll remember who you are: late nights when you’re out rambling across the jacquard landscape of your no longer youth in a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro with black racing stripe or the Dodge Charger your dad loaned you that you better bring back in better shape than you found it—washed with the garden hose, dried with a chamois, whitewalls sparkling where you rubbed each Brillo pad down to a nub—or the bright blue Pontiac Bubbletop you saved up three summers to buy, yet still it stalls out at every intersection: There’s the national anthem, of course, and your eyes always grow wide and wet at ball games, even though half the time you forget to take off your cap, forget to splay your paint-splattered palm across your drum-rolling heart, and to be perfectly honest, you’re not sure you ever learned all the words to that song: something perilous, something gleaming, and what was that about the ramparts? What parts exactly are those? More so, if you saw the original manuscript with lyrics penned by Francis Scott Key, you’d see how all the full stops are actually question marks, as if even he couldn’t be certain that this was really the land of the free and the home of the brave. America, I’ve seen your lottery tickets and love connections, your tinfoil swans and your Wheaties boxes. America, I know you like the back of my own hand that never learned to drive stick, always popping the clutch of another get-rich-quick scheme, pyramid or Ponzi. But you like the sound of a “star-spangled” something, don’t you? Sibilance, so sweet and pure. In this nation of riffs and new renditions, remember when CCR crooned, Some folks inherit star-spangled eyes? They were speaking for you and the millions like you: I ain’t no senator’s son, I ain’t no fortunate one. First question on the mini-marquee of your game show history, neon lights and three doors to choose from: Who does this remind you of? Some folks are born silver spoon in hand, Lord, don’t they help themselves, oh, But when the taxman comes to the door, Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale. You’re no millionaire’s son, America, but you just elected one, and there’s some reckoning to be done. Don’t be cowed now, don’t be fooled: you aren’t post-truth, and you aren’t post-trauma either. You got a fast car, my birthplace, my home; maybe together we can get somewhere. Tracy Chapman wrote you a ballad some years back, but I think you had the volume turned down. Then, she wrote you a fight song that you weren’t quite ready to hear. Be honest, America, who does this remind you of? Talkin’ bout a revolution, which sounds like a whisper until they get a white man miked; then, it sounds like a roar. Too cynical for your taste perhaps? Land of the souped-up, land of the spoiler, land of singing along with abandon as if you wrote every song all by yourself. Let’s try this: Your first inaugural poet wrote, the best way out is always through, then glanced sidelong for a trap door or a check-cashing store before he continued: And I agree to that, or in so far As that I can see no way out but through. America, this means you, and this means me, too. I’m going to stack track after track of old Spirituals on this tape because we are not done talking about slavery, and at the rate we’re going, I’m afraid no chariot will ever swing low to claim us. Hear me now. Stop revving your engine; stop pretending you didn’t see anyone stranded out there, flagging you down in the rearview. Lay Down, Body. Go Down, Moses. Deep Down in my Heart, America, I think you want to stop gripping that steering wheel so hard. I think you want to surrender the contents of your glove box, too. Looking for amnesty, my fractured nation? You should start by facing yourself in the rust-rimmed mirror in the all-night commode of your friendly neighborhood truck stop. Don’t assume that the faucet will run, that the toilet will flush. Don’t assume anything at all, America. Didn’t your mother teach you “to assume makes an ass out of u and me”? And while we’re on the subject, stop flashing your high beams for everyone else to move over. Stop calling “Shotgun!” when taking a ride because half the people who hear you are going to drop to their knees, hands in the air, mistaking slang for warning, confusing plea with threat. Steal Away and Pray. Study War No More. Will the Circle Be Unbroken. You’re scaring me, America, taking the turns too fast, pushing the needle too far. It’s plain to see you’re in love with your lore, with all your best stories set to music. What can I say? I’m in love with them, too. But it’s not enough to roar off into the sunset in your little red corvette, with your pink carnation and your pick-up truck, past every billboard for the Betsy Ross Dress for Less and the Chick-fil-A Closed on Sundays, Yasmine Bleeth in her sheer white swimsuit still asking if you’ve got milk and the red “H” burning bright as coal on topless mountain highways in the Heart of it All: HELL IS REAL, the sign says. Like you, America, it’s perilous and gleaming. But what about the ramparts? What parts exactly are those? I Want to Be Ready. I Shall Not Be Moved. I’ve Been a Listenin All Right Long. Tell me you’re made of more than pleather and AstroTurf, my country ‘tis of thee, more than apple pie and planned obsolescence, more even than Monday Night Football where we are still dreaming of heroes, another poet wrote, where, despite concussions and common sense, men still gallop terribly against each other’s bodies—perilous, and yet, also gleaming. A friend once told me, “No poem ever saved anybody,” but songs are poems, too, aren’t they? Surely a song has saved somebody, somewhere. Amazing Grace? Turn off the A/C and buzz down your windows, my birthplace, my broken home. There may not be a single answer blowin’ in the wind, but hear how the old questions boomerang back, sometimes smashing a window—How many years can a mountain exist Before it’s washed to the sea? Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist Before they’re allowed to be free? America, smell the fresh air and the diesel fuel, the wild flowers sweet and the wild fires raging. This is our heritage. This, all: the perilous and the gleaming and the ramparts, too. From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters. From Main Street to Wall Street, as our politicians like to say. Remember that we still have the B-side to write, America. Tie a string around your finger in case you think you might forget. Set a timer on the kitchen stove. In 1999, Time Magazine named “Strange Fruit” the twentieth century’s quintessential song. Tell me you know this story? It’s about a Jewish teacher named Abel Meeropol who “was disturbed at the continuation of racism in America.” In response to a photograph of a lynching, which he couldn’t cast out of his mind, Meeropol wrote a poem and later set it to music. So the poem became a song, and the song landed in the golden throat of a Black singer named Billie Holiday, who cast it wide as a net with her voice, wide as the oceans that hold us on either side: Pastoral scene of the gallant South, the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, And the sudden smell of burning flesh! America, this is your heritage, this, all: the lynching and the photograph that preserves the memory of it, our capacity for violence and our fear of forgetting what we have done; also, the man who was moved to write the poem that became this song; and also, and more so, the woman who found the power in her lungs and the vision in her voice to send it out to all of us, en masse: strange fruit that never had any business dangling from those trees but now, nearly a century later, because of her, because of him, cannot be unseen and will not go unheard. America, listen: We can’t let you take another little piece of our hearts. Now is not the time for lullabies, not the hour to put us to sleep. Yet we can’t retreat into silence either. America, America, resist the myth that your greatest days are already behind you. Strike the secret chord we’ve all been waiting for. Lean in close now and whisper, like a revolution, what this century’s fierce, sweet, unforgettable anthem will be.
– Julie Marie Wade
Julie Marie Wade is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2010), winner of the Colgate University Press Nonfiction Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir; Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), selected for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series; Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature; Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series; Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Books, 2013), selected by Bernard Cooper as the winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize; When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), selected for the American Library Association’s Over the Rainbow List; Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016); and SIX: Poems, selected by C.D. Wright as the winner of the AROHO/To the Lighthouse Prize in Poetry. A recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Kentucky Arts Council, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus. She is married to Angie Griffin and lives in the Sunshine State.