America, I sing you back

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke considers her poem “America, I Sing You Back” to be an extension of two famous poems about the identity of America: Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’ “I, Too”.

“Those poems were written by men— one white and one black— and I wanted to represent the voice of a woman, and an indigenous person. We all see our country from different perspectives culturally.”

Indigenous people want to see harmony restored to the Earth, said Coke, who is of mixed heritage. Hedge Coke uses the imagery of a mother singing to her child, and then waiting for the child to mature and enter a time of reason.

“During the disruption of the land, the mother is waiting for the child to accept advice. The child is going through its toddler or adolescent stage when it’s acting out. But the mother knows the child will accept reason. And then it will be time to reclaim the beauty of the Earth, the reverence, the peace and harmony.”

She says the poem was born not out of anger but concern for what she saw happening in the United States 12 years ago. She said she was especially alarmed by the greediness of politicians to take natural resources from the land.

“It was as if the government was acting like a child: ‘I want, I want, I want.’ And the indigenous people were just watching like worried parents without having any control over them.”

This past week, Hedge Coke found herself comforting students and colleagues at the university where she teaches, following the results of the presidential election. She said she tried to provide a calming presence and remind people to take a longer view. And she said her poem took on a new meaning.

“There’s always something at work beyond us. No matter how bad things get, there’s a way to make things over. There’s a way to add love, to restore balance again.”

America, I Sing You Back

for Phil Young and my father Robert Hedge Coke;
for Whitman and Hughes

America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Sing back the moment you cherished breath.
Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.

Before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.

My song helped her stand, held her hand for first steps,
nourished her very being, fed her, placed her three sisters strong.
My song comforted her as she battled my reason
broke my long-held footing sure, as any child might do.

As she pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,
as I cried this country, my song grew roses in each tear’s fall.

My blood-veined rivers, painted pipestone quarries
circled canyons, while she made herself maiden fine.

But here I am, here I am, here I remain high on each and every peak,
carefully rumbling her great underbelly, prepared to pour forth singing—

and sing again I will, as I have always done.
Never silenced unless in the company of strangers, singing
the stoic face, polite repose, polite while dancing deep inside, polite
Mother of her world. Sister of myself.

When my song sings aloud again. When I call her back to cradle.
Call her to peer into waters, to behold herself in dark and light,
day and night, call her to sing along, call her to mature, to envision—
then, she will quake herself over. My song will make it so.

When she grows far past her self-considered purpose,
I will sing her back, sing her back. I will sing. Oh I will—I do.
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke is a distinguished professor of creative writing for the University of California, Riverside. Her books include: “Streaming,” “Blood Run,” “Off-Season City Pipe“, “Dog Road Woman“, “Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas“, “Effigies I/II“, and “Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer.” She has worked in fields, factories and waters and is from mixed heritage including Huron, Metis, Cherokee, Luso and French Canadian ancestry.