Authors: Amanda Gorman
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It can take billions of years for light to reach us through the galaxies, which is to say, History is ever arriving.
—Don Mee Choi,
When we tell a story,
We are living
In ancient Greece, the Muses, the dainty-footed daughters of Memory, were thought to inspire artists. It isn’t knowing, but remembering, that makes us create. This would explain why so much great art arises from trauma, nostalgia, or testimony.
But why alliteration?
Why the pulsing percussion, the string of syllables?
It is the poet who pounds the past back into you.
The poet transcends “telling” or “performing” a story & instead remembers it, touches, tastes, traps its vastness.
Only now can Memory, previously marooned, find safe harbor within us.
Feel all these tales crushing our famished mouth.
Marianne Hirsch posits that the children of Holocaust survivors grow up with memories of their parents’ trauma; that is to say, they can remember ordeals that they did not experience personally. Hirsch calls this postmemory. Seo-Young Chu discusses what she calls postmemory han, han being a Korean conception of collective grief. Postmemory han, then, is the han passed on to Korean Americans from previous generations. As Chu writes: “Postmemory han is a paradox: the experience being remembered is at once virtual and real, secondhand and familiar, long ago and present.” The whiplike echo of Jim Crow, too, passes through Black bodies, even before birth.
Trauma is like a season, deep & dependable, a force we board our windows against.
Even when it passes, it will wail its wild way back to our porch.
We destroy everything good just so it will not shame us.
How easy it is to both leave & love this place.
In this manner, collective memory need not be experienced firsthand to be remembered. Grief, healing, hope are not dependent on the first person & more often than not are recalled through many persons.
Similarly, in Spanish, like in many languages, the verb’s conjugation often takes the place of a pronoun.
means “I carry.” The pronoun
(meaning “I”) is made unnecessary. The “I” is assumed, not absent.
, for example, in itself can mean she/he/it/you carries or carry. Something similar, if not exponential, happens with postmemory. Postmemory is not the solo but the choir, a loyal we, to be not above others, but among them. The trauma becomes: I/she/he/you/they/we remember. I/she/he/you/they/we were there.
Even beside each other, it was in terror.
Who else has mistaken pain for proximity.
Don’t believe a word from our mouths.
We’ll say anything to keep from drowning.
We posit that pre-memory is the phenomenon in which we remember that which we are still experiencing. It is how we understand a current reality as a collective memory, even as said reality continues to unfold. The recollections do not belong to a single person, nor do they have a determinate chronological end. The assertion becomes: I/she/he/you/they/we know. I/she/he/you/they/we are here.
Poke the scar until it speaks.
This is how every memory starts.
We droop our head in two,
Into an echo struck long before.
There are some of us who, when experiencing a tragedy or comedy in our lives, already think:
How will this be told to another? Can it be told? How can we possibly begin the story of what has happened to us?
Pre-memory defines who we are as a people. Will we forget, erase, censor, distort the experience as we live it, so that it cannot be fully remembered? Or will we ask, carry, keep, share, listen, truth-tell, so it need not be fully relived?
It is the moral difference between collective amnesia & collective remembrance.
Storytelling is the way that unarticulated memory becomes art, becomes artifact, becomes fact, becomes felt again, becomes free. Empires have been raised & razed on much less. There is nothing so agonizing, or so dangerous, as memory unexpressed, unexplored, unexplained & unexploded. Grief is the grenade that always goes off.
A smile around here is like a sudden star, undead & loaded.
To live only to die is to be doomed but redeemable.
All we know so far is we are so far
From what we know.
What is writing but the preservation of ghosts?
“Essay on the Appearance of Ghosts”
We rouse ghosts,
Primarily, for answers.
Meaning we seek
Ghosts for their memory
& fear them for it just the same.
Our country, a land of shades.
Yet there are no wraiths but us.
If we are to summon
Anyone or anything,
Let it be our tender selves.
Like ghosts, we have too much
To say. We will make do,
Even if in a graveyard.
We, like this place,
Are haunted & hungry.
The past is where we pull home,
Our forms once again fluent
In all things bright.
We forget this immensity, it will still be ours, for we wrote such mysteries down: we did the thing others dared not. We collected all the dazzling & dangerous & dreamed aches, scrapped them, though we did not yet have words by which to map them.
Someone will remember us, this, even if in another time, even if by any other name.
We wrap our arms around ourselves, as if we can possibly hold the whole of who we are within us—everything that makes us this unearthly speck we are. Perhaps tomorrow cannot wait to be today.
In this one life, we, like our joy, are fleeting but certain, abstract & absolute, ghosts who glow & glow.
Goodbye! (at the close of a letter); (in taking leave of the dead); . . . to be worth; (with genitive or ablative of price or value); to mean, signify;
parum valent Graeci verbo
the Greeks have no precise word for this (but we call it ‘night’)—.
—From Anne Carson’s definition of
We promise to write the truth.
Stay with us till the end.
This is how a word blooms into a virus & then into a body & then that body into bodies.
The “Spanish” influenza did
originate in Spain. In fact, the first recorded case was in the United States—in Kansas on March 9, 1918 (bewareth March). But because Spain was neutral in World War I, it did not censor reports of the disease to the public.
To tell the truth, then, is to risk being remembered by its fiction.
Countless countries laid blame to one another. What the US called the Spanish influenza, Spain called the French flu, or the Naples Soldier. What Germans dubbed the Russian Pest, the Russians called the Chinese flu.
It’s said that ignorance is bliss. Ignorance is this: a vine that sneaks up a tree, killing not by poison, but by blocking out its light.
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act blocked all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the US. It was the first federal law in the United States to differentiate between “legal” & “illegal” immigration. It was signed after generations of stereotyping Chinese immigrants as the carriers of cholera & smallpox.
Again, words matter(ed).
The first step to scapegoating a whole people is to delegitimize their value—to call them a host to nothing but horror.
Something in us repents every time a new friend doesn’t tell us their given name, preempting our tongue to lay a violence toward that too.
Heritage is passed not in direct recollection but through indirect retelling. Those who follow will not remember this hour, but this hour will surely follow them.
This discord is so ancient it makes fossils of us all, a history no longer entirely our own &
yet only ours, never understood.
) carries many meanings: “okay,” “understood,” “good,” “all right.” The verb
means “to cost, to be worth,” much like the English word
, yet in Spain
thrives under a different resonance.
Although called “Asiatic cholera,” the disease thrived in Europe. Smallpox had originally been brought to the Americas not by Asians, but by European invaders, contributing to the deaths of millions of Native peoples.
Sometimes, we must call our monster out from under the bed to see he/she/it carries our face.
Some will hate our words because they burst from a face like ours.
When the 1918 flu epidemic reached Chicago, John Dill Robertson, the city’s commissioner of public health, blamed the African Americans who had fled the South’s Jim Crow oppression for Northern cities. In the same lake-hugged city where our grandmother & mother would be born, on July 8, 1918, the
Chicago Daily Tribune
ran the headline: “Half a Million Darkies from Dixie Swarm to the North to Better Themselves.”
Stay. We promise, we are going somewhere, okay?
reporter Henry M. Hyde wrote that Black people “are compelled to live crowded in dark and insanitary rooms; they are surrounded by constant
temptations in the way of wide-open saloons and other worse resorts.”
The oppressor will always say the oppressed want their overcrowded cage, cozy & comforting as it is; the master will claim that the slaves’ chains were un-derstood, good, all right, okay—that is to say, not chains at all.
A racial insult renders us a mammal, albeit less free.
In short, a slur is a sound that beasts us.
This will never sound good, understood, all right:
In 1900 Surgeon General Walter Wyman described the bubonic plague as an “Oriental disease, peculiar to rice eaters.” As if we are what we eat & not also who we cheat, what we tweet.
He was dead.
What we mean is he was dead
We can only fully understand language by what doesn’t survive it.
In this way, ignorance is a sound that beats us—blue, black, yellow, red, a wretch of a rainbow. In Spanish, the definite article
is used far more frequently. It’s not blue, it’s
. The black,
. Not history,
history. As if there froth many pasts & we must be clear on which one we are forgiving, if any.
Our country, which we do not forsake for being un-great, that we should find by being good.
Goodness is how we move our words into something new: a kind of grace. In Spanish, the word for
is the same as for
. Courage must cost us something, or else it is worth nothing at all.
Who more shall pay & for what.
If we understand this at all, say
This act speaks for itself, as if to say: we know all it means to lift our head from our hands, to exit this shadow that we call night.
We have walked the skyless depths it cost for us just to be all right.
This feeling might be pain, poetry, or both. But at least it is no lie.
Ignorance isn’t bliss. Ignorance is to miss: to block ourselves from seeing sky.
We swear to write the whole truth, as at the close of a letter.
Farewell to all that makes us less than seeing or seen. Brave, upright beasts that we are, slide out of the curve of a long-lived blue. Its promise is the only articulate truth between us. The sky is colossal, undenied & yet understood. Maybe no one can pay the price of light. We yoke any warmth for all it’s worth.
At times even blessings will bleed us.
There are some who lost their lives
& those who were lost from ours,
Who we might now reenter,
All our someones summoned softly.
The closest we get to time travel
Is our fears softening,
Our hurts unclenching,
As we become more akin
To kin, as we return
To who we were
Before we actually were
Anything or anyone—
That is, when we were born unhating
& unhindered, howling wetly
With everything we could yet become.
To travel back in time is to remember
When all we knew of ourselves was
But I am hunting for something—anything—to give me some bearing, since I am, metaphorically speaking, at sea, having cut myself off from the comfort and predictability of my own language—my own meaning.
—M. NourbeSe Philip,