Words have power. If the past couple of years have provided any salient lesson, it is that the power to incite—and, yes, the power to inspire. In her new book, Call Us What We Carry, young poet Amanda Gorman has chosen the latter and uses the majesty of the written word to speak to a nation in the throes of a pandemic, as well as something potentially more virulent.
Gorman, 23, was imprinted onto our national psyche last January when she gave an impassioned reading of her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at the inauguration of the 46th U.S. president, Joe Biden. The resonant verse was like a warm, comforting blanket on that cold winter’s morning. Gorman’s poem intoned:
If we merge mercy with might, and might with right,
Then love becomes our legacy,
And change, our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.
With every breath from our bronze-pounded chests,
We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
In the aftermath of her widely acclaimed rendition, the nation clamored for more and awaited the publication of a promised collection of new work.
Finally, the book has arrived, and we see that “The Hill We Climb” serves more as the end of the writer’s journey through the darkness of the times, rather than the beginning. It is the final poem printed in the tome—the closing bookend, if you will—which lays bare Gorman’s thought process in reaching her own pinnacle of enlightenment.
With the COVID-19 crisis as the backdrop, we see the artist and activist grapple with its fallout and the myriad emotional wounds it opened. Over the course of the book’s 200-plus pages, big issues are brought to the fore in a fusion of new poems and collected historical writings from days past, which does indeed stand as a prologue to Gorman’s internal discourse.
The Harvard alum has synthesized pivotal issues in our collective consciousness—such as slavery, AIDS, the climate crisis, the holocaust, school shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement—in distilling this fractured moment in our story as a nation.
Gorman, the country’s first Youth Poet Laureate, already has established herself as a thought leader for her generation and here seems to embrace the mantle as she meditates on the fragility of life and on what comes next. In “Fugue,” she captures the sturm und drang of the pandemic thusly:
We could not pull our heads from the raucous deep.
Anxiety is a living body.
Poised beside us like a shadow.
It is the last creature standing.
The only beast who loves us
Enough to stay.
Poetry has always had strong roots in African American culture, with luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou among its noted purveyors. And, shedding light on racial and societal injustice has been central to their work. For her part, Gorman wades head-on into those waters, too. “Fury & Faith,” printed on pages that are jet black with white type set against them—in contrast to the bulk of the book—offers these words:
But the point of protest isn’t winning:
It’s holding fast to the promise of freedom,
Even when fast victory is not promised.
Meaning, we cannot stand up to police
If we cannot cease policing our imagination,
Convincing our communities that this won’t work,
When the work hasn’t even begun,
That this can wait,
When we’ve already waited out a thousand suns.
The black pages are just one of the ways in which graphic elements and creative devices are used to add another layer to the message. If it feels a little overwhelming at times, just slow down and appreciate what’s at the heart of it all—the words and the journey they take you on.
What I really enjoyed was just the utter celebration of language and how Gorman seems to revel in its sound, rhythm and music. The poems invite, and indeed demand, that we turn off our devices and tune in to the frequency of mindful contemplation.
The starts, the stops, the alliteration, the repetitions, the line breaks, and words that evoke other poetic imagery… It all merges in a symphony of compelling wordplay—replete with pop-culture references that range from “Hamilton” to Drake. In her poem “What We Carry” she sums up this sentiment quite simply in a line that reads /Language is a life raft./
While this book channels the pain and angst of the pandemic and other historical traumas, it also suggests that those things strengthen and gird us for the future. According to “Good Grief:”
What we carry means we survive,
It is what survives us.
We have survived us.
Overall, this ambitious work is proof positive that Gorman is a keen observer of society and deft at infusing her observations with historical context and contemporary culture. It is affirming that one of her age is thinking, questioning and seeking answers—a way out of the wilderness. Perhaps she says it best in “Compass:”
Lost as we feel, there is no better
Compass than compassion.