Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith Inaugural Reading

>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, DC.>>Please welcome the 14th
Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden. [ Applause ]>>Carla Hayden: Thank you. Hello and welcome. I’m delighted to see all
of you here with us today for our new poet laureate’s
opening reading. You may clap right now. [ Applause ] As the Librarian of Congress, I’m charged with appointing
the poet laureate consultant in poetry every year, a
position that, by law, is described as equivalent to that of poet laureate of
the United States. What an awesome responsibility. The Library surveyed over 120 poetry
experts from coast-to-coast: editors and critics, publishers,
bookstore owners, and of course, our former poet laureates. And in the end, the
choice was crystal clear. But before I sing the
praises of our new appointee, I want to introduce
a very special guest. This year, for the first time ever, our nation has its own national
youth poet laureate [applause]. Now, this position was almost
a decade in the making. In 2008, the literary
organization, Urban Word, worked with New York City to launch
their youth poet laureate program. And since then, 41 other
cities across the country, from Seattle to South
Florida, Boston to Los Angeles, Madison to Baton Rouge,
followed suit. And this past year, Urban Word
identified its first group of regional national youth poet
laureate finalists in the Northeast, Southeast, South, Midwest, and West. And in April, they named the first
ever national youth poet laureate. Now, Urban Word didn’t
do it all alone. There were plenty of organizations
to thank for this nationwide effort. And please join me
in recognizing a few of Urban Words’ wonderful
local partners. Do More Baltimore, the host for Baltimore’s youth
poet laureate [applause]. Dialect USA, the host for Prince
George’s County’s youth poet laureate [applause]. And Words, Beats, and Life, the
host for the Washington, DC, youth poet laureate [applause]. And finally, thank you
to Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word. Michael, could you please stand up? [applause]. There he is. Your vision and hard work has
paid off tenfold, and the Library of Congress is delighted
to do its part in promoting the national
youth poet laureate. And what an inspiring young woman
you found to take on that role. In her 19 years, LA native Amanda
Gorman has done more to speak out, organize, and give back than
most of us do in a lifetime. I had the pleasure of riding the
elevator today with her grandmother. Can you please stand up? [ Applause ] Now, you can read about
Amanda’s many accomplishments in your program, or
talk to her grandmother. And tonight we have the privilege to hear Amanda read a poem
she’s composed especially for this occasion. So please join me in
welcoming Amanda Gorman, the nation’s first
youth poet laureate. [ Applause ]>>Amanda Gorman: Amanda,
center yourself, get ready. Before I read my poem, I want to
give my most sincere thank you to the Library of Congress and
Tracy K Smith for involving me in such a phenomenal occasion. So a round of applause to this
program, please [applause]. My poem is called In This
Place, an American Lyric. There’s a poem in this place
in the footfalls in the halls in the quiet beat of the seats. It is here, at the curtain of day, where America writes a lyric
you must whisper to say. There’s a poem in this place in
the heavy grace, the lined face of this noble building,
collections burned and reborn twice. There’s a poem in Boston’s Copley
Square where protest chants tear through the air like sheets of rain, where love of the many
swallows hatred of the few. There’s a poem in Charlottesville
where tiki torches string a ring of flame tight round the
wrist of night where men so white they gleam blue seem
like statues where men heap that long wax burning ever higher
where Heather Heyer blooms forever in a meadow of resistance. There’s a poem in the great
sleeping giant of Lake Michigan, defiantly raising its big
blue head to Milwaukee and Chicago a poem begun long
ago, blazed into frozen soil, strutting upward and aglow. There’s a poem in Florida, in
East Texas, where streets swell into a nexus of rivers, cows afloat
like mottled buoys in the brown, where courage is now so common that 23-year-old Jesus Contreras
rescues people from floodwaters. There’s a poem in Los Angeles
yawning wide as the Pacific tide where a single mother swelters in a
windowless classroom, teaching black and brown students in Watts
to spell out their thoughts so her daughter might
write this poem for you. There’s a lyric in California
where thousands of students march for blocks, undocumented
and unafraid; where my friend Rosa finds the
power to blossom in deadlock, her spirit the bedrock
of her community. She knows hope is like a stubborn
ship gripping a dock, a truth: that you can’t stop a
dreamer or knock down a dream. How could this not be her city su
nacion our country our America, our American lyric to write a
poem by the people, the poor, the Protestant, the Muslim, the
Jew, the native, the immigrant, the black, the brown, the blind,
the brave, the undocumented and undeterred, the woman, the man,
the nonbinary, the white, the trans, the ally to all of
the above and more? Tyrants fear the poet. Now that we know it
we can’t blow it. We owe it to show it not slow
it although it hurts to sew it when the world skirts below it. Hope, we must bestow it like a wick
in the poet so it can grow, lit, bringing with it stories to rewrite
the story of a Texas city depleted but not defeated a history written that need not be repeated a nation
composed but not yet completed. There’s a poem in this place, a poem
in America a poet in every American who rewrites this nation, who
tells a story worthy of being told on this minnow of an earth to
breathe hope into a palimpsest of time, a poet in
every American who sees that our poem penned
doesn’t mean our poem’s end. There’s a place where this poem
dwells, it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell where we write an American lyric
we are just beginning to tell. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Carla Hayden: Well, thank you,
Amanda, for your wonderful poem and for setting the stage for
our poet laureate, Tracy K Smith. If Amanda represents where poetry
can go, Tracy has brought us here and there in poem after
poem and book after book. During the selection process, I had
the opportunity to sit down at home and read Tracy’s Pulitzer
prize-winning poetry collection, Life on Mars, and I was wowed. In poem such as My God, it’s Full of
Stars, the Speed of Belief, and Yes, Life on Mars, Tracy takes us
farther than we imagine we can go, to the great beyond and
deeply inward as well. Her poems walk us through
their wandering. Their power is that they can go
anywhere they want: scientific fact, pop artifacts, bits of
memories, and arguments of faith. They aren’t simple
but they are direct. And they aren’t afraid
to face the painful parts of our past and present. My favorite moment in the book
came in the poem, They may love all that he has chosen and hate
all that he has rejected. While the title dates back more than
2000 years to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the poem moves straight
to the present-day horror of hate crimes making news. Tracy shows us in a new and yet
intuitive way how hatred changes us. Instead of just reading about
hatred, she asks us to imagine it, to feel it, to own it, in a way
that can’t be easily ignored. The great American poet
William Carlos Williams wrote, It is difficult to get
the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day
for lack of what is found there. Our great American poet and
newest poet laureate knows how to give us the news our minds
and hearts and souls most need. Please join me in welcoming
Tracy K Smith. [ Applause ]>>Tracy K Smith: Thank
you, Dr. Hayden. And thank you, Amanda. I feel so much joy
and hope and belief when I hear your voice, Amanda. I know the future is in good hands and that poetry will
remain alive and well. So thank you. And, Dr. Hayden, it’s such an honor to be selected and
introduced by you. I remember when I was very young,
I started but was never able to finish a poem in
which I was trying to imagine the afterlife
as a librarian. And I think I was on to
something, because moving through these mammoth
buildings, through the hallways, the beautiful halls, and then
the underside of the building, all the tunnels, I realize
there’s something magnificent and divine that’s housed here. But there’s also something
ethereal that is born of the energy and the belief that
builds places like this. So I’m extremely grateful
to be here tonight. I’m excited about the year
ahead and the conversation that poetry will allow me to
have with my fellow Americans. So I thought I would go back to
the beginning and read a few poems from each of my books and finish
with some newer work that makes up my forthcoming book,
Wade in the Water. These are poems from
the Body’s Question. A Hunger so Honed. Driving home late through town,
he woke me for a deer in the road, the light smudge of it
fragile in the distance, free in a way that made
me ashamed for our flesh. His hand on my hand, even the
weight of our voices not speaking. I watched a long time, and a long
time after we were too far to see, told myself I still saw it nosing
the shrubs, all phantom and shadow, so silent it must have
seemed I hadn’t wakened. But passed into a deeper,
more cogent state of dream. The mind a dark city,
a disappearing, a handkerchief, swallowed by a fist. I thought of the animal’s mouth
and the hunger entrusted it. A hunger so honed the green
leaves merely maintain it. We want so much, when perhaps
we live best in the spaces between loves, that
unconscious roving, the heart its own rough animal. Unfettered. The second time, there were two that
faced us a moment the way deer will in their Greek perfection, as though
we were just some offering the night had delivered. They disappeared between
two houses, and we drove on, our own limbs sloppy after that, our
need for one another greedy, weak. [ Applause ] You’re going to get
tired if I make you clap after each poem, so don’t worry. So a large portion of my first
book is dedicated to the memory of my mother, who died
when I was 22. And so I’m going to read just a
couple of sections from what I think of as the heartbeat of this book,
which is an elegy to her called Joy. Imagining yourself a girl again, you ask me to prepare a simple
meal of dumplings and kale. The body is memory. You are nine years old, playing
hospital with your sisters. These will be my medicine, you
tell them, taking a handful of the raisins that you love. They’ve made the room dark
and covered you with a quilt, though this is the South in summer. The body’s appetite. You savor the kale,
trusting this one need. But the body is cautious, does
not want more than it wants. Soon there will be a
traffic of transparent tubes, striking their compromise
with the body. When you close your eyes,
I know you are listening to a dark chamber around
a chord of light. I know you are deciding
that the body’s a question: What do you believe in? It will rain tomorrow, as it rained
in the dark days after you died. And I will struggle with what
to wear, and take a place on the bus among those
I will only ever know by the shape their
shoulders make above the backs of the seats before mine. It’s November, and
storm clouds ascend about the roofs outside my window. I don’t know anymore
where you’ve gone to. Whether your soul waits here
in my room, in the kitchen with the newly blown bulb,
or whether it rose instantly to the kingdom of hosannas. Some nights, walking up my steps
in the dark, digging for the mail and my keys, I know you are
far, infinitely far from us. That you watch in the way one
of us might pause a moment to watch a frenzy of ants, wanting
to help, to pick up the crumb and put it down Close to their hill,
seeing their purpose that clearly. These are some poems from Duende. Many of you will recognize that
term as one that Garcia Lorca kind of brought into the
wider vocabulary of art. It’s used to describe the
wild, often times dark and unpredictable energy that we all
house, not just artists but people. And that a daring artist
might seek to draw out and wrestle with in art making. I loved that so much when I was a
student reading about it in workshop and saying, oh, I want to have that
kind of passionate sense of my work. And then years later, traveling,
I realized this sense of wrestling with something that might undo
you and surviving the effort with something remarkable to show,
something that’s not just beautiful but something that’s raw
and damaged and profound, that’s not just something
artists do. I think about the way that
people all over the world, all over our world, are wrestling
with something that seeks to undo them and they do their best. And oftentimes they overcome it. And so this concept became
something that had to do with just the urgency
of being human. So I’ll read you a couple of poems from that book that’s
thinking with it. The first one is set in
Spain, where the speaker of the poem is observing the art
form, the traditional art form, of the deep song that Lorca
worked so hard to translate to readers outside of Spain. This poem is called Duende. The earth is dry and
they live wanting. Each with a small reservoir of
furious music heavy in the throat. They drag it out and with nails in their feet coax
the night into being. Brief believing. A skirt shimmering
with sequins and lies. And in this night that is not
night, each word is a wish, each phrase a shape their
bodies ache to fill. I’m going to braid my
hair braid many colors into my hair I’ll put
a long braid in my hair and write your name there. They defy gravity to
feel tugged back. The clatter, the mad
slap of landing. And not just them. Not just the ramshackle
family, the tios, Primitos, not just the bailaor whose heels
have notched and hammered time so the hours flow in
place like a tin river, marking only what once was. Not just the voices of
scraping against the river, nor the hands nudging them farther, fingers like blind birds,
palms empty, echoing. Not just the women with sober
faces and flowers in their hair, the ones who dance as though they’re
burying memory, one last time. Beneath them. And I hate to do it here. To set myself heavily beside them. Not now that they’ve
proven the body a myth, a parable for what not even language
moves quickly enough to name. If I call it pain, and try to touch
it with my hands, my own life, it lies still and the music thins,
a pulse felt for through garments. If I lean into the
desire it starts from. If I lean unbuttoned into
the blow of loss after loss, love tossed into the ecstatic void,
it carries me with it farther, to chords that stretch and bend
like light through colored glass. But it races on, toward
shadows where the world I know and the world I fear
threaten to meet. There is always a road,
the sea, dark hair, dolor. Always a question bigger
than itself. They say you’re leaving Monday,
why can’t you leave on Tuesday? [ Applause ] And this poem is one that I
kind of think of as an example of like the domestic duende. It’s called Slow Burn. We tend toward the
danger at the center. Soft core teeming blue with fire. We tend toward what
will singe and flare, but coil back when brought near. Sometimes we read about
people pushed there and left to recover, they don’t. Come out mingled or not at all, minds flayed by visions
no one can fathom. I have a cousin who
haunts the basement of my aunt’s house,
drinking her liquor. The air around him is cold, and
he swings at it, working himself into a sweat like a
boxer or an addict. Sometimes he comes
upstairs to eat her food, feeding the thing inside him. We laugh, thinking laughter will
make us safe, then we go home and lie down in our lives. Sometimes when my thoughts won’t
sit still, I imagine Marcus down there awake in the dark, hands
fisted in his lap, or upturned, open in what might
be a kind of prayer. I’m certain the same thing
dragging his heart drags ours, only he’s not afraid to name it. Can call it up into the room and
swear at it, or let it rest there on the couch beside him till
his had slumps onto his chest and the TV bruises the
walls with unearthly light. [ Applause ] In some ways, although
I didn’t realize it when I was writing these poems, Life
on Mars is a book that’s seeking to answer that question from my
first book, What do You Believe in. And there are so many different
directions that the poems go in an effort to bring
something coherent and consoling together for me. This is a poem called
The Weather in Space. Is God being or pure force. The wind or what commands it. When our lives slow and we
can hold all that we love, it sprawls in our laps
like a gangly doll. When the storm kicks
up and nothing is ours, we go chasing after all
we’re certain to lose. So alive faces radiant with panic. Cathedral Ciche [phonetic]. Does God love gold. Does he shine back at himself
from walls like these leafed in the earth’s softest wealth. Women light candles. Pray into their fistful of beads. Cameras spit human light
into the vast holy dark. And what glistens back
is high up and cold. I feel man here. The same wish that
named the planets. Man with his shoes and
tools, his insistence to prove we exist, just like God. In the large and the small. The great and the frayed. In the chords that rise
from the tall brass pipes and the chorus of crushed cans. Someone drags over cobbles
in the secular street. There is a little bit of
us sort of science fiction or wishful understanding of the
actual principles of science that runs through this book. So I’ll just read you a
little sample of that. You might remember from — well, if
anyone ever read the novelization of cupric’s wonderful
film 2001 A Space Odyssey, it opens with the line — or dot
dot dot, my God it’s full of stars. There’s something that
I’m not remembering that precedes that statement. And then if any of you like
me ever saw the movie 2010, that film opens with that quote. So that sense of the future that
I grew up on in science fiction that was made in the ’60s
and ’70s, film mostly. With something that drove my
visual imagination in this book, thinking about how
innocent those old versions of the future always feel once
we’ve, you know, we pass them up. And so that’s part of what’s
running through this poem. But, of course, it’s also
an elegy for my father. So I’ll read you just a few sections in which some of these
things come up. My God it’s Full of Stars. Perhaps the great error
is believing we are alone, that the others have come
and gone, a momentary blip. When all along, space might
be chock full of traffic. Bursting at the seams with
energy we neither feel nor see, flush against us, living, dying,
deciding, setting solid feet down on planets everywhere. Bowing to the great
stars that command. Pitching stones at
whatever are their moons. They live wondering if
they are the only ones. Knowing only the wish to know and the great black distance
they, we, flicker in. Maybe the dead know. Their eyes widening at last. Seeing the high beams of a million
galaxies flick on at twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want it to be one notch below
bedlam, like a radio without a dial. Wide-open, so everything
floods in at once. And sealed tight so nothing escapes,
not even time, which should curl in on itself and loop
around like smoke. So that I might be sitting
now beside my father as he raises a lit match
to the bowl of his pipe for the first time in
the winter of 1959. In those last scenes of cupric’s
2001, when Dave is whisked into the center of space,
which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light, before
opening wide like a jungle orchid for a lovestruck bee, then
goes liquid, paint in water, and then gauze wafting out and
off before finally the night tide, luminescent and vague, swirls in. And on and on. In those last scenes as he floats
above Jupiter’s vast canyons and seas over the lava strewn
plains and mountains packed in ice, that whole time he doesn’t blink. In his little ship,
blind to what he rides, whisked across the wide
screen of unparceled time. Who knows what blazes
through his mind. Is it still his life
he moves through. Or does that end at the
end of what he can name. On set, it’s shot after
shot, till cupric is happy. Then the costumes go
back on their racks. And the great gleaming
set goes black. When my father worked
on the Hubble telescope, he said they operated like surgeons. Scrubbed and sheathed
in papery green. The room a clean cold
and bright white. He’d read Larry Niven at home
and drink scotch on the rocks. His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years, when we
lived with our finger on the button and struggled to view
our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
bowing before the Oracle eye, hungry for what it would find. His face lit up whenever anyone
asked and his arms would rise as if he were weightless,
perfectly at ease in the neverending night of space. On the ground, we tied
postcards to balloons for peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died. We learned new words for things. The decade changed. The first few pictures
came back blurred. And I felt ashamed for all
the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time, the optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is. So brutal and alive, it
seemed to comprehend us back. I’ll never now read this poem
and not think of this place. Because on my last
visit to the Library, a wonderful librarian named Nanette and her colleagues
pulled the archive of Hubble space telescope
materials and set them up for me. And she said, I was
looking at these pictures. Everybody’s wearing masks. They’re in these clean outfits. But I was hoping one of
them might be your father. But don’t worry, I’m going to go
through his military archive and see if I can find anything for you. So this is wonderful [applause]. I’m going to read some newer poems. I might go backwards. But I have a new book of poems that
will be coming out this spring. And a lot of the themes that
I’ve always been interested in, I continue to be interested in. I think primarily they have to
do with how we treat each other. Whether that means intimate
relationships or, you know, the people we never ever meet but
upon whom our lives have an effect. And it’s a book that’s seeking
to explore that question by looking backward toward
history in some moments and also looking at
us now, as we are. And one of the things that I
find myself really thinking about or maybe willfully meditating
upon is this notion of compassion. As an act or a mode that we
can choose to operate in. And often we fail to do that. So I’ll reach you from
around this book in which you’ll hear
different versions of that, that consideration. I think the other little thing
I’d say about this book is that, whereas Life on Mars is trying
to imagine this universe, the vast thing that we know like
a tiny little pinprick size amount of information about with certainty,
what I’m also interested in is what that system belongs to or what
continuum it is a part of. And so I imagine that the
history of eternity is something that I’m also trying to
will my brain to imagine. Because we’re a part of it, right. And what we do is imprinting that in
ways that we may not even recognize. So this is a small poem that kind
of dips its toe in that question. It’s called Garden of Eden. What a profound longing I feel, just
this very instant, for the Garden of Eden on Montague Street. Where I seldom shopped,
usually only after therapy. Elbow soar at the crook from a
hand basket filled to capacity. The glossy pastries,
pomegranate, persimmon, quince. Once a bag of black Beluga lentils
spilt a trail behind me while I labored to find a tea
they refused to carry. It was Brooklyn. My 30s. Everyone I knew was
living the same desolate luxury. Each ashamed of the same things. Innocence and privacy. I’d lug home the paper bags, doing bank balance
math, and counting days. I’d squint into it or close my eyes
and let it slam me in the face. The known sun setting
on the dawning century. About five months ago, I visited
coastal Georgia to Geechee and Gullah communities that
make up the Sea Islands. And I had the privilege to attend
a ring shout, which is a tradition that brings spiritual into just this
really beautiful living rhythmic space that reminds us
of the deep connection between African-American
tradition and Africa. When I went to this
performance, I had been — so I had been in the South for
a number of days going to a lot of sites of a very painful history. Some of which were marked,
many of which were not. And then I walked into this
space feeling, you know, like a storm inside, just about
like, you know, who we are, what we come from, what we are able
to acknowledge and what we’re not. And a woman who was one of the
performers just walked up to me. I’d never seen her
before in my life. And she said, I love you,
and she gave me a hug. And I just lost it. I felt like, that’s exactly
what my soul needed to hear. And I couldn’t stop
thinking about her. And so this is the poem
that came from that. I’ve since met her again, and
her name is Bertha McKnight. And she’s a member of the
Geechee Gullah ring shouters. And so this poem is
dedicated to them. Wade in The Water. One of the women greeted me. I love you, she said. She didn’t know me. But I believed her. And a terrible new ache rolled
over in my chest, like in a room where the drapes have
been swept back. I love you. I love you. As she continued down the
hall past other strangers, each feeling pierced suddenly
by pillars of heavy light. I love you, throughout
the performance in every hand clap, every stomp. I love you in the rusted iron
chains someone was made to drag, until love let them be
unclasped and left empty in the center of the ring. I love you in the water,
where they pretended to wade, singing that old blood
deep song that dragged us to those banks and cast us in. I love you. The angles of it scraping
at each throat, shouldering past the swirling dust
motes in those beams of light, that whatever we now knew we could
let ourselves feel new to climb. O, O, woods, O, dogs, O,
tree, O, gun, O, girl run. O, miraculous many gone. O, Lord, O, Lord, O, Lord. Is this love. The trouble you promised. [ Applause ] So that poem leads into
a Civil War poem that — DC is just like such a
wonderful — I’m realizing now, this Civil War poem was commissioned
by the Smithsonian for an exhibit of Civil War portraits
a number of years ago. So, wow, thank you. It’s a history that, of course,
I learned about but I never felt that I had a footing within it. And so being asked to think
about it was a real gift. Because I had to say, well, what
perspective am I curious about? And I wanted to know about
recorded testimonies or experiences from black soldiers of that
war and their families. And so I found a number of sources
that included letters that many of soldiers or their widows
or their families wrote to President Abraham Lincoln,
asking for help in some way. Either getting their son paid or
finding out if they were free yet. And I also found a number of
testimonies from depositions that veterans and their families
gave after the war, sometimes for, you know, decades and
decades after the war, in an attempt to claim pension. Slavery made it very
difficult for blacks to do that because there were
not birth certificates or marriage certificates
that people had. And so it was very difficult for
them to prove that they had served. So reading these documents,
I felt like all I wanted to do was make a space for them
to exist together as a chorus. And so I’m going to
read you two sections from a found poem called I Will
Tell You The Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It. And these two sections are
written really as choruses that every few lines
is a different speaker, but I feel like they’re telling
pieces of the same story. Excellent, sir. My son went in the 54th Regiment. Sir, my husband, who is in company
K 22nd Regiment US colored troops and now in the Macon hospital at
Portsmouth, with a wound in his arm, has not received any
pay since last May. And then only $13. Sir, we, the members of company D of
the 55th Massachusetts volunteers, call the attention of your
Excellency to our case. For instant, look and see
that we never was freed yet. Run right out of slavery
in to soldiery. And we hadn’t nothing at all. And our wives and mother most all
of them is a perishing all about. And we all are perishing our self. I am willing to be a soldier and
serve my time faithful like a man. But I think it is hard to be put
off in such dog-ish manner as that. Will you see that the colored men
fighting now are fairly treated? You ought to do this. And do it at once. Not let the thing run along. Meet it quickly and manfully. We poor oppressed ones appeal
to you and ask fair play. So please, if you can do any good
for us, do it in the name of God. Excuse my boldness, but please,
your reply will settle the matter and will be appreciated by
a colored man who is willing to sacrifice his son in the
cause of freedom and humanity. I have nothing more to say. Hoping that you will
lend a listening ear to an humble soldier, I will close. Yours for Christ sake, I shall
have to send this without a stamp, for I ain’t money enough
to buy a stamp. [ Applause ] But wait, there’s more. I am 60 odd years of age. I am 62 years of age next month. I am about 65 years of age. I reckon I am about 67 years old. I am about 68 years of age. I am on the rise of 80 years of age. I am 89 years old. I am 94 years of age. I don’t know my exact age. I am the claimant in this case. I have testified before you
two different times before. I filed my claim I think
first about 12 years ago. I am now an applicant for a pension. Because I understand that all
soldiers are entitled to a pension. I claim pension under the general
law, on account of disease of eyes, as a result of smallpox
contracted in service. The varicose veins came on
both my legs soon after the war and the sores were there
when I first put in my claim. I claim pension for rheumatism and
got my toe broke and I was struck in the side with the breach
of a gun, breaking my ribs. I was a man stout and healthy, over
27 years of age when I enlisted. When I enlisted, I had a little
mustache and some chin whiskers. I was a green boy right off the farm
and did just what I was told to do. When I went to enlist, the
recruiting officer said to me, your name is John Wilson. I said no, my name
is Robert Harrison. But he put me down as John Wilson. I was known while in
service by that name. I cannot read nor write and I do
not know how my name was spelled when I enlisted, nor do I
know how it is spelled now. I always signed my name while
in the Army by making my mark. I know my name by sound. My mother said after my discharge that the reason the
officer put my name down as John Wilson was
he could draw my bounty. I am the son of Solomon
and Lucinda Sibley. I am the only living
child of Dennis Campbell. My father was George Jordan and
my mother was Millie Jordan. My mother told me that
John Barnett was my father. My mother was Mary Eliza Jackson
and my father Ruben Jackson. My name on the role was Frank Nunn. No, sir, it was not Frank Nurn. My full name is Dick Lewis Barnett. I am the applicant for pension
on account of having served under the name Lewis Smith, which was the name I wore before
the days of slavery were over. My correct name is Hiram Kirkland. Some persons call me Harry
and others call me Henry, but neither is my correct name. The United States Welcomes You. Why and by whose power
were you sent? What do you see that
you may wish to steal? Why this dancing? Why do your dark bodies
drink up all the light? What are you demanding that we feel? Have you stolen something? Then what is that leaping
in your chest? What is the nature of your mission? Do you seek to offer a confession? Have you anything to do with
others brought by us to harm? Then why are you afraid? And why do you invade
our night, hands raised, eyes wide, mute as ghosts? Is there something
you wish to confess? Is this some animatic type of test? What if we fail? How and to whom do we
address our appeal? I think I will kind of wind down
with just a couple of poems. I want to read something
that’s a little bit happy. Okay, this is a poem — my
daughter is here being so perfect and wonderful in the
front row [applause]. So this is a poem that was
written a few years back. It’s called Four and a Half. Morning finds her curled like a
prawn around a stuffed blue Pegasus or the smallest prawn pink lion. Or else she’s barging into
my room and leaning in close. So it’s her hair I wake to. That coarse, dark heaven
of knots and purple fluff. And she’s hungry. But first she has to pee. Pee, pee, she sings,
hopping in place. Trying to stanch off the wild
ravenous river she carries, until I’m awake for real. Saying, go, go, hurry
before you wet the floor. And then she tries and succeeds
or else stands bereft relieved as a pool trickles
out around her feet. She’s like an island made
of rock with one lone tree at the top of the only mountain. She’s like the soul in Congas
goat tethered to the tree. Smiling almost as you approach. Scraping the ground with its
horns and then lickety-split, lurching hard, daring
the rope to snap. She’s hungry. She wants bread, toasted,
with no skin. And enough butter to
write her name in. Or a bowl of cereal,
but not the noisy kind. She wants a movie or maybe just the
tussle of her will against mine. That scrape and crack, horn on rock,
rope relenting one fiber at a time. I want that, she says, punctuating
what she just said she wanted. Before I close with one last poem,
I want to reiterate my thanks to everyone here tonight, many of
whom are family members, teachers, friends, mentors, colleagues
in this world of poetry. And of course to Dr. Hayden and
Rob Casper and the Library staff who have just been so
wonderful in making this feel like it’s not just a dream, this
is real, this is really happening. So thank you. And of course, Amanda. I’m excited to follow your voice. An Old Story. We were made to understand
it would be terrible. Every small want. Every niggling urge. Every hate swollen to
a kind of epic wind. Livid the land and ravaged
like a rageful dream. The worst in us having taken over
and broken the rest utterly down. A long age passed, when at last we
knew how little would survive us. How little we had mended or
built that was not now lost. Something large and old awoke. And then our singing brought on
a different manner of weather. Then animals long believed
gone crept down from trees. We took new stock of one another. We wept to be reminded
of such color. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at LOC.GOV.