Good poetry can help us hold two opposing ideas in our minds at once.
For instance: A new year is a blank page, waiting for us to write on it. It is a chance to begin all over again. A new presidential administration offers us the same chance. After the year we’ve had, we have to believe in the possibility of a fresh beginning.
But also, how can you turn the page on 2020, much less on four years of tumult under Donald Trump? How can you imagine that what was written won’t keep bleeding out into 2021?
Last year’s police brutality protests turned into this year’s off-duty cops rioting at the Capitol; last year’s hopes for a quick vaccine to quell the pandemic turned into this year’s 4,000 people dead in one day. And no matter what happens under a new administration, our losses will stay lost. There are no fresh starts, and there are no blank pages, and we have to believe that, too.
To try to pull apart this moment, we turned to poets from across the country and asked them to send us poems for a new year. The poets represent the country, including 2014 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry Saeed Jones; 2020 US youth poet laureate Meera Dasgupta; former inaugural poet Richard Blanco; and former Academy of American Poets chancellor Jane Hirshfield.
In their work, the ideas of a fresh beginning and lingering wounds live and mingle together. They jostle against each other until both feel clear and vital and inescapable. Each on its own, each at the same time.
In “Poem of Blood,” Mahogany L. Browne dares us to just try to forget the past — and reminds us of exactly who cleans away the messiness when white people start talking about a fresh clean start. “But i’m an old broad now,” she writes, “& I got plenty of anger to lend / the days have bled from two weeks / ’til forever / & i got blood on my mind.”
But in Dasgupta’s “groceries on the moon,” forgetfulness becomes a vacuum, a blank space in which to inscribe and re-inscribe our old mistakes, and the mistakes of our parents. “i do not remember a great white before,” she tells us. “i do not remember the beginning. i do not / remember floating or saturn saying i do.”
Perhaps most redemptive of all is Hirshfield’s “Counting, New Year’s Morning, What Powers Yet Remain To Me.” This poem does not take place in a world without pain: Here, “the feet of the new sufferings followed the feet of the old,” and “Stone did not become apple. War did not become peace.” And yet, Hirshfield counters, “Joy still stays joy. Sequins stay sequins. Words still bespangle, bewilder.”
Art exists to help us understand two impossible ideas at the same time. The world is unbearable, but we have to bear it, and that contradiction is why we have art. More specifically, that is why we have poetry, so that what we cannot express in prose can find meaning. So that what we cannot bear in life, we can find a way to bear in verse.
These poems for a new year are here to let words bespangle, bewilder. Even as we try for a fresh start and fail, joy still stays joy.
It Isn’t Fair, It Isn’t Right
The color of a memory is the difference
between haunted and hunted. In Mississippi,
red white and blue don’t mean “remember
this is America.” They mean “history is a gun
and every bullet in its chamber wants you
to forget.” They mean “we tried our best
not to be America and failed and now we keep
forgetting to forget and, anyway, who did you
vote for? No need to ask us. You already know.”
They mean the white man in the White House
tweeted this morning that he’s being lynched.
Outside my hotel — no, I’m not from around here —
on the street corner, there is a plaque that tells me
where I can find the body of the town’s first white
settler. But it’s almost sundown and I’ve been told
darkness in Mississippi is not a metaphor so I chase
the shadows back into the hotel. At the bar, I beg
the bartender to make me a stronger drink. He tries
and he fails. I’m scared and Black and mostly sober
at the hotel bar and reading an essay about lynching
when some Ole Miss frat boys explode into the room,
cheering in a dead language, and my heart doesn’t
even wait for me to get the check. My heart is already
gone. My heart is cowering in the hallway in front
of my hotel room because I have the key and I just
now got the check and I keep forgetting to forget
that the America I was born in will not be
the America in which I die.
New Year Re-Solutions, 2021
Stop closing the shades, let the sun glow again
like a god who loves and wakes me to me
in the wake of its divine light traveling millions of miles
to ripple mauve and amber into my window, raise
my shut eyes open, done dreaming. Breathe.
Let my coffee’s steamy soul rise and bless me
every day with its aroma before I take my first sip.
Name each day a miracle, linger again in its mystery
of possibilities. Breathe. Set the mime-hands of my watch
back two minutes every day, until time and me disavow
each other’s obligations. Open the newspaper, but read
between the black and white lines for its lies. Breathe.
Stop walking my dog, let him dog-walk me unleashed
through his park. Let his nose compass me toward
the smells of all I’ve stopped taking in: the sweet,
ancient dank of mud and mosses, the incense
of pine tree bark. Let his ears point me to listen again
to all I’ve become deaf to: the wind harping through
the strings of leaved branches, the opera of wrens
gossiping about the weather’s secrets. Breathe. Don’t deal
with the mail every day, let bills and notices pile up
like a house of cards until it collapses on the kitchen counter.
Take up cooking again, but add music to my recipes:
sway my hips as I beat eggs to conga beats, tap my feet
as I chop shallots to the staccato of piano keys, sing along
as I strum the sauces slow and tender to the croon
of a folk guitar. Bake all the desserts I deserve, dip
my finger into the frosting first, bite into the crust, lick
the plate clean, feast on my life. Breathe. Indulge
myself more often alone in the living room where
I’d forgotten to live. Take down my old photo albums
from the shelves, stare at all the dusty years of myself
in those eyes I had forgotten were mine and still love
me. Breathe. Sit on the porch every night, but stop
asking the moon: Who am I? Accept the moon as simply
the moon, and me as simply me, just as bright
and wise, just as scared and delicate as I was
last year, and will be this year, and the next and
the next, perfectly imperfect in the nothing of
my everything, breathing as if each breath
is forever my first and my last.
Richard Blanco is an engineer, writer, and award-winning poet. He’s the author of the 2019 book How to Love a Country and the 2013 inaugural poet of the United States for the inauguration of President Barack Obama; he was the first Latino to hold the role.
Counting, New Year’s Morning, What Powers Yet Remain To Me
The world asks, as it asks daily:
And what can you make, can you do, to change my deep-broken, fractured?
I count, this first day of another year, what remains.
I have a mountain, a kitchen, two hands.
Can admire with two eyes the mountain,
actual, recalcitrant, shifting its pebbles, sheltering foxes and beetles.
Can make black-eyed peas and collards.
Can make, from last year’s late-ripening persimmons, a pudding.
Can climb a stepladder, change the bulb in a track light.
For four years, I woke each day first to the mountain,
then to the question.
The feet of the new sufferings followed the feet of the old,
and still they surprised.
I brought salt, brought oil, to the question. Brought sweet tea,
brought postcards and stamps. For four years, each day, something.
Stone did not become apple. War did not become peace.
Yet joy still stays joy. Sequins stay sequins. Words still bespangle, bewilder.
Today, I woke without answer.
The day answers, unpockets a thought from a friend—
don’t despair of this falling world, not yet
didn’t it give you the asking
Jane Hirshfield’s ninth book of poems is Ledger (Knopf, 2020). A former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the founder of #PoetsForScience, she was elected in 2019 to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
groceries on the moon
“The emptiness of space is a blank slate, offering us the opportunity to start over, on an endless canvas that can support our continuous cycle of learnings and failings.”
―Aneesh Abraham, Super Dense Crush Load: The Story of Man Redux
$2.00 - oxygen
$3.99 - H2O
$0.99 - space rocks
$15.00 - daylight
and so they bound towards the sun. my
to-do becomes an orbital body amongst
cosmic spaceships. the list lets loose like
an old flag on mars.
we like to believe in alternate realities.
that behind every black hole is another boy joyriding
a shopping cart through aisle fifteen. a mother
pulling her son away from the shelves of produce.
how she bargains breath for their safe passage
through a jettison of asteroids. from the ground,
we wish upon them like shooting stars.
there is a strength in numbers. i want to climb orion’s
belt to see if there is a kingdom on the other side.
if there is a god managing the checkout line from behind a
curtain of satellites where thousands of heroes whisper
the show must go on.
i wonder if there is an icarus pulling a sort of gravity from the
moon as he falls. a single father against an empire.
born of a half-life and shipwrecks. he leaps off of the edge
of the universe into an ocean. here the heavens call to
him. find me. find us. find you. find you.
i do not remember a great white before. i do not
remember mother banging the door straight off the
hinges for the neighbor’s potpourri or when she put
her hands on her hips and swore to turn on the damn
lights. i do not remember the beginning. i do not
remember floating or saturn saying i do.
somewhere, man bought the moon
and got a supermarket on a pockmarked
plain. a tower of vegetables for a sale price
of 1.99. and an automated speaker system
screeching melodies into a vacuum.
here, silence becomes a microphone
in the dark. the fridges gleam like the
cold comets of space blinking back at each
other in the moments between celestial
they become an eye at the center of the
universe. here, we can bargain with the
Meera Dasgupta is the 2020 United States youth poet laureate. Born in Queens, she is a senior at Stuyvesant High School, 2020 United Nations Global Goals ambassador, Climate Speaks winner, and more.
Poem of Blood*
Mahogany L. Browne
The first to go are your breasts
Hanging like sandbags
Sad & remembering who they used to be
The way a wind chime whistle
can sound like a refrain: stay home, daughter
No one wants to talk
About a woman’s body during a disaster
Like she’s the disaster
Walking & moving slow toward the sun
They rather talk about the things they can’t want
to change until it’s voting season, or tax season or killing season
Another black girl is forgotten ’til dust
The poets only remember her boyfriend’s name
Or her brother’s shoe size
they only remember the black girl body
after she is gone
The pastor reads from Genesis
pass the plate
& erase her initials from
Even the black feminist forgets she was once a girl child
She closes her eyes & calls her son Prophet
Tells Prophet to never trust women
Then twists his dreads w/homemade beeswax
Her fingers cracked like stomped earth
Her scalp tingling w/bad news
& the news say
a disaster is coming
call it Irma, Katrina, Rona
a penchant for baby’s breath & blood milk
But the blocks still hot in Brooklyn
& the nannies still push strollers full of babies they ain’t birth
Cause the Governor warns stay home
But the landlord echoes rent due
Go head America
wreak havoc on the plantation
& charge the sharecropper to remove the sewage
watch the next internet sensation
rely on old hip-hop t-shirts
& yoga pants while
Lizzo teaches her how to be human
even the trees look at black bodies like
& the baby in the stroller ain’t heard this lullaby
since they dreamt Similac
brown organic raw sugar go for double the price
@ whole foods
get in line
6 feet, fam
don’t sleep, fam
Paychecks from the government
courtesy of the taxes already paid three times the amount
since the last two runs around this weak ass moon
Gil Scott Heron was right
Here we all smack slapped
against the light of a smudged badge #
glint my eyes
Flint in my sky
Everybody wants my census report
but don’t nobody want to give me healthcare
The water got blood in it
the trees got a memory
my city ain’t on fire
but the fog is heavy
each building swaddled in grey shit
that make us sick
cover your mouth
cover your nose
or be run over
& up on by the white woman who walks her dogs
so close you can hear what she’s thinking
6 feet who?
the neighbors don’t see me
but the broken man on the corner do
My breasts, old with age
they sag like my spirit
He timberland boot & black mask bark
he play brave
stomp his feet
& take up more sidewalk
than there is concrete
He howls at the sky
like it ain’t 12pm
like we ain’t in a crisis
his eyes dart from my chest to my cheeks
but I’m an old broad now
& I got plenty of anger to lend
The days have bled from two weeks
& I got blood on my mind
I dare him one time
kiss my teeth loud
then dare him w/the clearing my throat
it sounds like a funeral
it distracts him from the sound of key rings
turning into knuckle rings
But he knows the different between frail & feral
He replaces his mask
corks his speech
& lets me pass
an unhinged door on tilt
O can you hear the wind sing?
so close to death, so close to life,
little water, little daughter,
*This is inspired by Sonia Sanchez’ untitled haiku: “Come windless invader. I am a carnival of. Stars a poem of blood.”
Mahogany L. Browne is a writer, organizer, educator, and the executive director of Bowery Poetry Club and poetry coordinator at St. Francis College. She is the author of several books, including the new novel Chlorine Sky (Crown Books for Young Readers), published in January. (Copyright 2021 by Mahogany L. Browne.)
The light before noon and what it does to the mind.
How you leaned against doors at parties, cried in bodegas,
read bathroom graffiti and did not ask for help.
Some nights Second Avenue seemed to go on forever.
Some nights above a bar there was a plane that felt right.
When you stood in parking lots, under the moon
you went silent.
You thought about chance. History.
How cruel it is to be anyone.
“You know,” a friend told you,
“we can talk about the past
but it’s another country
without one way to get there.”
Maybe that’s easy.
You’ve seen what fog does to bridges.
Maybe you forgot you could do anything before death.
Alex Dimitrov is the author of three books of poems, including Love & Other Poems (Copper Canyon Press), which will be published in February. He lives in New York.
Poem for a New Year
Glinting shards of dropped branch-ice
litter the white ground under the maples,
each glassy fragment containing
its unique memory of tree,
that, as the day warms, thins and spreads
into a gleaming tangle of light,
a crazed mirror held up to the future.
Hope isn’t anyone’s to give.
It has to be found.
And I come out here to find it,
to take each moment as it comes.
A kind of borrowing.
A lone mourning dove arrives
in the smoky-blue sky of its feathers,
and lands, slender as a cupped hand,
among the seeds scattered on the stone walkway,
its faint tracks in the snow-dust—briefly mine.
Patty Crane is the author of Bell I Wake To (Zone 3 Press, 2019), something flown (Concrete Wolf, 2018), and Bright Scythe (Sarabande Books, 2015), her translation of poems by Swedish Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer.