American flags have sprouted on the lawns and bumpers of Southeast Portland, Oregon, since the 2016 Presidential election. Is this not a strange sight growing out of the fertile ground that produces Portlandia’s romping satires of the Left? But this is no satire. People are reclaiming the Stars and Stripes and redefining the flag, in this case with all caps in the field of blue and across the red and white lines. Banner after banner, these yard signs read: “IN OUR AMERICA ALL PEOPLE ARE EQUAL LOVE WINS BLACK LIVES MATTER IMMIGRANTS & REFUGEES ARE WELCOME DISABILITIES ARE RESPECTED WOMEN ARE IN CHARGE OF THEIR BODIES PEOPLE & PLANET ARE VALUED OVER PROFIT DIVERSITY IS CELEBRATED.”
There’s a surprisingly earnest patriotism here from what, at its worst, can be a political tribe of irony, indifference, and indecision. Those of us who in the past might have said of the flag, “It’s just fabric,” are haunted by the specter of the Confederate and Nazi flags so much in the news of late. It seems every stitch of the American flag has become a potent and divisive symbol, as well, in this year of Colin Kaepernick’s unemployment, Tina Fey’s flagging sheet cake satire, and the Burns/Novick Vietnam War documentary.
Wendy Willis’s Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize-winning collection, A Long Late Pledge (Bear Star, September 2017), enters this national reckoning on cue and on pitch. In poems that create a dialogue with founding father Thomas Jefferson, and using imagery of the flag and stitchery, Willis creates an argument in favor of embracing the contradictions of contemporary America, and of recommitting to a new, messy, and self-aware patriotism in search of the ideals of democracy. These poems affirm that the political is personal, and that dissent, reengagement with democratic ideals, recognition of complexity, and a capacity for humor are all valuable when stitching together the flag of perfect imperfection.
Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville’s omnipresent founding father and slave owner, is a central figure in A Long Late Pledge. The speaker of these poems addresses Jefferson throughout the book from her place in Portland, Oregon—a place at a great physical remove from Charlottesville, but near Lewis & Clark’s Jefferson-inspired Western destination: “Out here in Mr. Jefferson’s garden of the world.” The intimacy with Jefferson can be tender, surprisingly familiar, as when, in “Doctrine of Discovery: Notes on the State of America,” the speaker addresses Jefferson as “My one,” and teases him for when he “stirred up consternation in Lynchburg by eating / a tomato—whole—right in the public square.” Meanwhile, the cross-country dialogue physically encompasses much of the nation, letting none of us off the hook by way of geography, and the dialogue across time requires the poems, and their reader, to reckon with the fact that our nation has fallen short of its founding principles.
“More Notes on the Theory of American Degeneracy” is a fanciful poem that, according to the notes section of the book, plays with a Jeffersonian “madcap expedition to have a stuffed American moose delivered to the Count in his Paris salon” (the Count in question is Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon):
It’s going to take a lot more than a moose this time
to convince the French that this country
isn’t withered & rife with noxious vapors.
The Republic’s going to hell in a hand basket.
All the poets say so. Though on second thought,
a moose might not be a bad start. What with the high speed train
and all, let’s take him live this time. And forget about the French.
Let’s walk him right through the front doors of the House
The poem then describes a scene in the House of Representatives in which members of various western states are debating state animals, when a “tired soul from the back bench” declares, “I yield my time / to the gentleman from Virginia & the lady from Oregon.” Is this Jefferson and Willis’s citizen-poet persona? “You: Behold the Moose. Me: a deep curtsy, knee to the floor.” Jefferson’s ideals and playfulness are reflected in the century-conflating, nation-spanning, lightheartedness of the poem.
While the dialogue with history relies heavily on the era of Jefferson (who offers plenty of contradictions), other eras are conjured as well. Lincoln is a politically less fickle figure than Jefferson, and his word-smithing in the Gettysburg Address gets ten essential lines in the book. Willis reminds us of Lincoln’s hope that “these dead / shall not have died in vain”—words that still apply to our current political context. In another poem “They Say It Makes Us Strong to Swim Before Winter’s End,” Willis writes, “It’s March / 1973 and later I’ll learn that John Dean is warning / about a cancer on the presidency. He had no idea.” Here, Willis presciently links contemporary woes surrounding the presidency with past ones—Dean’s famous words of warning to Nixon that Watergate would be a “cancer on the presidency.”
As a wordsmith herself—“Who am I to wield this pen from the provinces?”—Willis deploys alliteration with bravura: “Who am I to topstitch hither to yon? / To name drop, name names, natter on, normalize / for nativists, swallow what is noxious and what is not?” The energy of the language transcends the civic lecture one might expect given the subject matter, and the question, “Who am I…?,” simultaneously expresses doubt and acknowledges a going forward with it, seizing the franchise to speak, to make a decorative display.
Yes, the poetic language could be called decorative, but this is more than display, and that “topstitch” isn’t the only sewing reference. They’re pervasive throughout A Long Late Pledge, and stitchery is a potent extended metaphor that Willis develops gracefully and effectively. An important series that provides a subtle architecture for the collection is called “Stitch,” and includes “Stitch: The Forest,” “Stitch: A Warning,” and “Stitch: The Street.” Each “Stitch” is a short poem that pulls together the larger metaphor of the nation, the flag, and the speaker’s pledge. Here’s the first one we encounter, “Stitch: The Forest”:
The forest is coy year after year,
until the day it lifts its sharp skirt
for the licking flame. The winds
hiss their tsk tsks. What is it
they would have me mend?
(Purse-string sutures are shaky but painless.)
When the fates shout down the heresy of stitch,
I can’t help but turn to the nurse log,
to the unravel of the blood line,
to the tear from sea to (shining) sea.
Like a seam gone bad, black flies and maggots set in.
Trains, with their midnight horns,
pass just beneath the skin.
My companions are quotidian. A sampler of loss.
In this poem, the speaker chooses to mend and not to scrap, to heal and not to damn. But we recognize, in “(a) sampler of loss,” that while the book has room to “stand for the Republic,” the type of stitching undertaken in its pages—complex, messy, uncertain at times, albeit devoted—may be deemed heretical by some.
The title poem, “A Long-Late Pledge,” takes a cut up Pledge of Allegiance and quilts it back together with scraps of poetry, remnants of the Gettysburg Address, and Captain William Clark’s response to finally seeing the Pacific Ocean. The ”long” indicates that this is an elaboration, an interpretation, a riff on the actual words of The Pledge. The “late” fits with the notion that the speaker of these poems believes that a recommitment to democracy is necessary now. It is late for our country. We must look back in dialogue with the founders, examine a patched-together country, an embattled flag, and consider how to stop floundering.
It’s about time that I swear allegiance to this Republic
though I suppose those Washington counting men
have long counted me as one of their own. But I crossed
my fingers behind my back, mouthed the words,
sang watermelon under my breath. Now there’s no hope in waiting,
and here I am shaky and tired. But that’s about right in this nation
where everybody looks rattled and shaken and tired. I understand
the shaken or shaky or shook up, but why for the love of God
and this good declaration is everyone so tired?
Owl-eyed and slow-flanked and tired. It must be the lights,
day and night, the lights. Have you ever seen the space-shots
of earth? So bright. Even dark is light. But I’d best raise my hand now
before the sun breaks its arc, before I break free, before I lose heart.
_____________________________I pledge allegiance
supposing this nation needs the allegiance of shaky-kneed women, small owls, cracked leather, cracked lips, cracked minds, nurse logs and huckleberry not yet ripe, beak moss and cork boots, foxes long gone but whose spirits still nibble at fiddleheads, late-day fog, spike prongs and clearcuts and redsides, loggers and lawyers, wild strawberry and wild mind, supposing this nation needs this sworn allegiance, supposing this nation needs allegiance at all
_________________________________to the flag
they say there are two million stitches in a flag, must be twice that many to keep that flag on the moon. four million tiny stitches. all sewn by hand
_________________________of the United States of America
oh sing—this broken promise, this broken nation, this broken land—sing it back to whole
_____________________and to the Republic for which it stands
Mr. Lincoln tells it best… .
…and here the poem delves into excerpts of the Gettysburg Address.
With the anaphora of “supposing,” the epistrophe of “tired,” and the polyptoton of “shaky,” the poem’s layered rhetorical devices, seen throughout Willis’s work, generate a sonic energy that makes it a little hard to stand still with our hands on our hearts for this pledge. “[B]efore I break free, before I lose heart” anticipates these wiggles that overcome us. We delight in the humor of the “allegiance of shaky-kneed women,” which brings counterpoint to the earnest, heartfelt line (and my favorite), “oh sing… this broken promise… back to whole.” We understand that the nation has never been whole in the worldview of this poem, which quotes Lincoln’s old Gettysburg words that still resonate: “the unfinished work,” “the great task remaining,” remain unfinished today.
Even more than to the flag, Willis’s pledge of allegiance seems to be to the country, to a pluralistic approach to engaged democracy, to the ideal of the Republic (capital ‘R’). In this, A Long Late Pledge is hopeful: We’re still learning how to make (to stitch, to hem, to mend) this democracy. It’s like learning to line dance. In “The Cupid Shuffle,” the country stumbles “to the right, to the right, to the right.” Then we find our footing again going “to the left, to the left, to the left.” When it comes time to “kick, now kick, now kick,” we wonder who, and at which protest? There’s someone telling us where to go and what to do, left and right. But then come the lines, “Now walk it by yourself, now walk it by yourself,” and there’s room for the dancers to improvise a bit. We’ve outgrown the prescriptions and commands. We must turn to the poets and to what they show us in ourselves as we begin to dance, as we begin “to sing it back to whole,” as we continue to stitch this ideal together.