Authors: Amanda Gorman
_ O _ _ PEN!
NOW _ PEN!
_ _ _ _ _ IT IS OVER
_ _ _ WA _ T IS OVER
THANKS FOR _ ASKING!
FIN _ _ _ _
_ _ LAST
_ _ _ ALLY
_ _ _ COME BACK
WE _ COME BACK
WE _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ WILD
WE _ _ _ _ RING
WAT _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ WE _ _ MEANT TO _ _ SEE _
WAT _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ WE _ _ MEANT TO BE _ _ _ _
Key: The letters in this puzzle are taken from business advertisements we saw June through July 2021. People with auditory processing disorders, like the author, often have difficulty processing & recalling the order of sounds & words. The original ads for the third to last & last two sentences were, respectively:
Welcome back to the wild (advertisement for a zoo)
Watch movies like they were meant to be seen (advertisement for a movie theater)
The worst is over,
Depending on who you ask.
This time, we are alone,
Not by command,
But because all we’ve ever desired
Is a second of our own,
To be still & seeing,
Remote but non-distant,
Like a moon orbiting
The globe it’s most fond of.
Now that the best has begun,
Depending on who you ask,
We will be no worm,
Shrinking from all that shines.
Our future is a sea
Flooded with sun,
Our souls, so solar & soldiering.
There is a cut of that burning in us all.
Who are we, if not
What we make of the dark.
As the world came apart,
We have come together.
Only we can save us.
Our faces fill with the hour,
New meaning lapping
Against us like mooned tides.
Laden with what we’ve lost,
We are led
By what we love.
As far away as it is,
The late sun looks
Peelable in our palm.
That is to say, distance
Renders all massiveness
Carriable. It is the carrying
That makes memory mutual,
The pain both private & public.
Slowly, grief becomes a gift.
When we greet it, when we listen to our loss,
When we indeed let it live,
It will not shrink in size,
But lighten in load.
It lets us breathe.
The densest despair takes
Us to no ordinary joy.
Into the deep inside us
Is the only way
We rise above it.
This rush of peace runs
So deep it roots us to the spot.
It is true that poetry
Can lamp an era scraped hollow,
A year we barely swallowed.
There is a justice in joy,
Starlit against all that
We have ended, endured &
We will not stir stones.
We shall make mountains.
Let us rephrase,
For we’ll say it right this time
(& isn’t that what endings are for?):
We do not hope for no reason.
Hope is the reason for itself.
We don’t care for our beloveds
For any specific, singular logic,
But, rather, for the whole of them.
That is to say,
Love is justified by loving.
Like you, we are haunted & human.
You, like us, are haunted & healing.
What we feel to be true
Can only be understood
By what it does to the body.
The same as trees,
We, too, are shaped
By how we twist
Toward all that shoots
Us through with sun.
We truly are growing
Up & out of this hurt
If we’d rather char
Than chain this love.
Our only word for this is
To begin again
Isn’t to go backwards,
But to decide to go.
Our story is not a circle carved,
But a spiral shed/shaped/spinning,
Shifting inward & outward
Like a lung on the bank of speech.
Breathe with us.
We disembark both beside & beyond
Who we were, who we are.
It is a return & a departure.
We spiral on, pushing up & out,
Like a growing thing
Making its form out of earth.
In a poem, there’s no end,
Just a place where the page
Glows wide & waiting,
Like a lifted hand,
Poised & paused.
Here is our bond, unbordered by bone.
Perhaps love is how it feels
To breathe the same air.
All we have is time, is now.
Time takes us on.
How we are moved says everything
About what we are to each other
& what are we to each other
If not everything.
As kids we sat in grass,
Fished our hands into the dirt.
We felt that damp brown
Universe writhe, alert & alive,
Earth cupped in the boat of our palms.
Our eyes waxed wide with wonder.
Even grime is a gift,
Even what is mired is miraculous,
What is marred is still marvelous.
Ark: a boat like that which preserved Noah’s family & animals from the flood. The word comes from the Latin word
, meaning “chest,” much like the Latin word
, “to close up, defend, or contain.”
can also mean the traditional place in a synagogue for the scrolls of the Torah.
That is to say,
We put words in the ark.
Where else to put them.
We continue speaking/writing/hoping/living/loving/fighting.
That is to say, we believe beyond disaster.
Even endings end
At the lip of land.
Time arcs into itself.
It is not a repeat, but a reckoning.
Days can’t help but walk two by two—
The past & present, paired & paralleled.
It is the future we save
From ourselves, for ourselves.
Words matter, for
Language is an ark.
Language is an art,
An articulate artifact.
Language is a life craft.
Language is a life raft.
We have recalled how to touch each other
& how to trust all that is good & all right.
We have learned our true names—
Not what we are called,
But what we are called
To carry forth from here.
What do we carry, if not
What & who we care most for.
What are we,
If not the price of light.
Loss is the cost of loving,
A debt more than worth every pulse & pull.
We know this because we have decided to
The truth is,
One globe, wonder-flawed.
Here’s to the preservation
Of a light so terrific.
The truth is, there is joy
In discarding almost everything—
Our rage, our wreckage,
Our hubris, our hate,
Our ghosts, our greed,
Our wrath, our wars,
On the beating shore.
We haven’t any haven
For them here. Rejoice, for
What we have left
Behind will not free us,
But what we have left
Is all we need.
We are enough,
With our hands,
Open but unemptied,
Just like a blooming thing.
We walk into tomorrow,
But the world.
Mr. President and Dr. Biden, Madam Vice President and Mr. Emhoff, Americans, and the World:
When day comes, we ask ourselves:
Where can we find light
In this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
And the norms and notions of what “just is”
Isn’t always justice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow, we do it.
Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed
A nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.
We, the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl,
Descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,
Can dream of becoming president,
Only to find herself reciting for one.
And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine.
But this doesn’t mean we’re striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose,
To compose a country committed
To all cultures, colors, characters,
And conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not
To what stands between us,
But what stands before us.
We close the divide,
Because we know to put
Our future first, we must first
Put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
So that we can reach our arms out to one another.
We seek harm to none, and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew,
That even as we hurt, we hoped,
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together. Victorious,
Not because we will never again know defeat,
But because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision that:
“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree,
And no one shall make them afraid.”
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory
Won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.
is the promised glade,
The hill we climb, if only we dare it:
Because being American is more than a pride we inherit—
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
History has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption.
We feared it at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
Of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we’ve found the power
To author a new chapter,
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked: How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert: How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was,
But move to what shall be:
A country that is bruised but whole,
Benevolent but bold,
Fierce and free.
We will not be turned around,
Or interrupted by intimidation,
Because we know our inaction and inertia
Will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain:
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.
We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the West!
We will rise from the windswept Northeast, where our forefathers first realized revolution!
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states!
We will rise from the sunbaked South!
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover,
In every known nook of our nation,
In every corner called our country,
Our people diverse and dutiful.
We’ll emerge, battered but beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade,
Aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it,
For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
The line “tryna end things” is inspired by a lyric from the song “Work” by Rihanna featuring Drake, which was released on the 2016 album
. Their lyrics are “If you come over / Sorry if I’m way less friendly.”
“levels of social trust”: David Brooks, “America Is Having a Moral Convulsion,”
, October 5, 2020,
“a 2021 study suggests”: Arnstein Aassve et al., “Epidemics and Trust: The Case of the Spanish Flu,”
30, no. 4 (2021): 840–857,
The lines “We must change / This ending in every way” were inspired by the final sentence in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which reads “You must change your life.”
“What a piece of wreck is man” is a phrase inspired by a monologue by Prince Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play
, which reads “What a piece of work is a man!”
The line “we become what we hunt” is inspired by this passage from Nathaniel Philbrick’s
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
: “The sperm whales’ network of female-based family unit resembled, to a remarkable extent, the community the whalemen had left back home on Nantucket. In both societies the males were itinerants. In their dedication to killing sperm whales the Nantucketers had developed a system of social relationships that mimicked those of their prey.”
“Wine-dark” is an epithet frequently used by Homer in
to describe the sea.
Terence was a formerly enslaved person who went on to become a famous playwright around 170
. This line, “
Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto
,” is one of his most famous, and translates to “I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” Maya Angelou mentioned this quotation in Oprah’s Masterclass series.
The line “No human is a stranger to us” calls back to Terence’s sentiments.
The line “This is not an allegory” speaks to a quote from Plato’s
(translated by Paul Shorey) on Hephaestus being cast from heaven by Zeus: “But Hera’s fetterings by her son and the hurling out of heaven of Hephaistos by his father [Zeus] when he was trying to save his mother from a beating, and the battles of the gods in Homer’s verse are things that we must not admit into our city either wrought in allegory or without allegory. For the young are not able to distinguish what is and what is not allegory.”
For continuity of the book’s voice, for many quotations and original documents used in the erasure poems, I have inputted the ampersand in place of “and,” as well as the first-person plural “our/we/us” instead of other narrative pronouns. Punctuation and capitalization have also been modified occasionally where appropriate.
A Dictionary of English Etymology
, vol. 1 (London: Trübner & Co., 1859), 72.
The line “how we want our parents red” is inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem “Romance Sonámbulo,” which repeats the line “Verde que te quiero verde,” or “Green, how I want you green,” throughout.
Mention of “the dead” in reference to what is stored in a pithos is influenced by Giorgos Vavouranakis, “Funerary Pithoi in Bronze Age Crete: Their Introduction and Significance at the Threshold of Minoan Palatial Society,”
American Journal of Archaeology
118, no. 2 (2014): 197–222.
“Postmemory han is a paradox”: Seo-Young Chu, “Science Fiction and Postmemory Han in Contemporary Korean American Literature,”
33, no. 4 (2008): 97–121.
The title “Who We Gonna Call” is a reference to the original “Ghostbusters” theme song, to the film of the same name, by Ray Parker Jr.
The line “a slur is a sound that beasts us” is inspired by lines in Lucille Clifton’s seven-part poem “far memory,” in part six, “karma,” which reads “the broken vows / hang against your breasts, / each bead a word / that beats you.”
Cecilia was a sixteen-year-old Yakama tribal member from Toppenish, Washington, who died of the flu at the Chemawa Indian School, a US government–run boarding institution in Salem, Oregon. This poem “erases” a letter of condolence from the superintendent of the Yakama Indian Agency to Cecilia’s mother, Grace Nye. Cecilia was one of thousands of Native Americans who perished from the flu epidemic. It was a devastating blow for the Indigenous population on the heels of near-annihilation from genocide, abject poverty, disenfranchisement, disease, and brutal forced relocation.
The head nurse Daisy Codding recorded a staggering 150 flu cases and thirteen deaths at the school. As the superintendent writes: “I was so extremely busy that it was impossible for me to tell you the particulars in connection with the death of Cecilia.” Cecilia died more than two hundred miles from her family, which was no rarity among Indigenous children. Under the creed “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” the US government removed tens of thousands of Native American children from their families and forced them into federally run boarding schools for assimilation. As Cecilia’s death shows, genocidal education could indeed “kill the Indian.” The superintendent’s letter ends: “Trusting that Cecilia’s body reached you in good shape and sympathizing with you, I am.” The Chemawa Indian School remains the oldest boarding school for Native American students still operating in the country.
Dana Hedgpeth, “Native American Tribes Were Already Being Wiped Out—Then the 1918 Flu Hit,”
, September 27, 2020,
“Members of Oregon’s Congressional Delegation Continue to Demand Answers Surrounding Chemawa Indian School,” Congressional Documents and Publications, Federal Information & News Dispatch, LLC, 2018.
Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 124.
The title “DC Putsch” is a reference to the Beer Hall Putsch, or Munich Putsch, a failed coup d’état by Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, on November 8 and 9, 1923. After this coup, Hitler was arrested and charged with treason.
During the First World War, the US Army was still racially segregated. Most African American service personnel were placed in noncombative
roles, separate from whites. Over 100 Black physicians served as US Army Medical Corps officers, along with 12 Black dental officers, 639 Black infantry officers, and 400,000 Black enlisted men. Fourteen Black women served as navy clerks. Discriminatory administrative barriers prevented trained African American nurses from joining the war effort, but the public health crisis of the 1918 epidemic finally allowed eighteen Black nurses to be the first of their race ever to serve in the Army Nurse Corp during the epidemic and the war’s aftermath.
“Roy Underwood Plummer”: “Cpl. Roy Underwood Plummer’s World War I Diary,” Smithsonian, National Museum of African American History and Culture, last modified June 17, 2021,
“dutifully kept a diary”: Douglas Remley, “In Their Own Words: Diaries and Letters by African American Soldiers,” National Museum of African American History and Culture, last modified May 18, 2020,
“Most African American service personnel”: “African Americans in the Military during World War I,” National Archives, last modified August 28, 2020,
“finally allowed eighteen Black nurses”: Marian Moser Jones and Matilda Saines, “The Eighteenth of 1918–1919: Black Nurses and the Great Flu Pandemic in the United States,”
American Journal of Public Health
106, no. 6 (June 2019): 878.
The title “War: What, Is It Good?” is a play on the song “War” by Edwin Starr, from the 1970 album
War & Peace
“The 1918 influenza killed”: Kenneth C. Davis,
More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War
(New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2018).
“the British pioneered cable cutting”: Gordon Corera, “How Britain
Pioneered Cable-Cutting in World War One,”
, December 15, 2017,
“refusing to print doctors’ letters”: Becky Little, “As the 1918 Flu Emerged, Cover-Up and Denial Helped It Spread,” History, last modified May 26, 2020,
“The British Army Postal Service delivered”: “Letters to Loved Ones,” Imperial War Museums, last modified December 14, 2020,
“General Orders No. 48”: “Soldiers’ Mail,” The National WWI Museum and Memorial, last modified July 8, 2021,
“reported its post office”: “Archive Record,” The National WWI Museum and Memorial, last modified September 1, 2021,
“condolence cards sold out in 2020”: Michael Corkery and Sapna Maheshwari, “Sympathy Cards Are Selling Out,”
New York Times,
April 28, 2020,
“a majority of United States”: “USPS Market Research and Insights: COVID Mail Attitudes
Understanding & Impact (April 2020),” United States Postal Service, last modified May 1, 2020,
The line “What place have we in our histories except the present” is influenced by D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Under the Oak,” specifically the final line, “What place have you in my histories?”
“Letter from Ida B. Wells-Barnett to President Woodrow Wilson,” DocsTeach, last modified September 19, 2021,
“The Names”: Joe Brown, A Promise to Remember: The Names Project Book of Letters, Remembrances of Love from the Contributors to the Quilt (New York: Avon Books, 1992).
“27.2 to 47.8 million people”: “Global HIV & AIDS Statistics — Fact Sheet,” UNAIDS, last modified July 1, 2020,
National AIDS Memorial, last modified December 14, 2020,
“Red Summer”: July can be hot as hate. But we know this better than anyone. The “Red Summer” of 1919, as well as the immediate years surrounding it, were arguably the worst period of white-on-Black violence ever seen in the United States. From 1917 through 1923, at least a thousand Americans were killed in racial clashes across the country. The bloodshed occurred at the collision of already high-running racial tensions. African Americans, during what is called the Great Migration, left the rural South seeking opportunities in Northern cities. With the end of World War I, white veterans returned home, viewing Black laborers as competition for jobs. Meanwhile, Black servicemen returned from fighting for democracy overseas only to be denied basic civil rights at home. Additionally, the country, particularly its more densely populated areas, was still reeling from the third wave of the deadly 1918 influenza, and whites frequently blamed African Americans for the spread of the illness.
With all these roiling stressors, the Ku Klux Klan resurged, and at least sixty-four lynchings of African Americans occurred in 1918. During the escalating bloodshed from the summer of 1919, at least twenty-five racial riots erupted all over the nation. Hundreds of African American men, women, and children were burned alive, lynched, dragged, shot, stoned,
hanged, or beaten to death by roving white mobs. Thousands of homes and businesses burned to the ground, leaving Black families homeless and jobless. While white assailants faced no punishment, Black Americans (many innocent) were tried and convicted by all-white juries.
The nation’s capital wasn’t spared the stain of racial terror. At least 39 people died and 150 were injured over a four-day period of violence in late July. Eventually two thousand federal troops were deployed (ironically, many of the white attackers were white military members freshly returned to the capital after WWI).
1919’s season of strife was dubbed “Red Summer” by the NAACP’s first Black executive field secretary James Weldon Johnson (author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as “the Black national anthem”). Johnson wrote about seeing DC in the NAACP’s
magazine. “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay, a sonnet, became the Red Summer anthem. Despite the hundreds of deaths it caused, there is still no national commemorative remembrance for the Red Summer (or for the 1918 influenza). See sources below. For a poetry book on the 1919 Chicago riots, see: Eve L. Ewing,
(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019).
“1917 through 1923”: William M. Tuttle,
Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).