Following a weekend of fear and violence in Charlottesville — where white supremacists and hate groups descended on the city and a car plowed through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19 — many have shared poetry to grieve, resist or try to understand the America they saw on display there.
Work has been shared by black poets who have long addressed the country’s troubled race relations, often with words of strength, including lines of Terrance Hayes (“I want to be a storm/ covering a confederate parade”), Maya Angelou, ( “today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully”) and Langston Hughes (“America never was America to me,/ And yet I swear this oath—/ America will be.”)
On Poets.org, its poem of the day — one that often speaks to the present moment — was a poem by Nicole Sealey that she said was inspired by an editorial decision to remove a line in a poem of hers about lynchings.
In Charlottesville this past weekend, white nationalists carried lit torches through the streets, calling up memories of mob lynchings of black Americans by white mobs in the 19th and 20th century.
“You should know that human limbs burn / like branches and branches like human limbs,” Sealey writes. “Only after man began hanging man from trees / then setting him on fire… did we come to know such things.”
“This poem resonates to me because it speaks to our past,” Sealey said. “I don’t think we can move forward without an acknowledgement of our past. Not sugarcoating the history of our country, but acknowledging it, and hoping we can move forward.”
On social media, poems were also shared as words of caution against standing by and watching — or not doing enough — in a time of violence:
No such thing
— Seamus Heaney (@HeaneyDaily) August 13, 2017
but not enough, we opposed them but not
Ilya Kaminsky "We Lived Happily During the War" https://t.co/VkwyEQsnux
— Oliver Baez Bendorf (@queerpoetics) August 13, 2017
Still other poems suggested ways to move forward from here:
Camille Rankine pic.twitter.com/leiP6KAOcb
— dī(ə)ltōn (@lilghosthands) August 13, 2017
" … Devestation occurs// whether we're paying attention or not. The options: repair/ a world or build a new one" – @KavehAkbar
— Mr. Steve Henn (@MrSteveEngHenn) August 13, 2017
— Red Brick Poetry (@BrickPoetry) August 14, 2017
As for Sealey’s poem, it ends with a wish that, a hundred years from now, a person would be “so far removed from the verb lynch that she be dumbfounded by its meaning.”
“It was hoping that 100 years from now we won’t be dealing with the issues we’re currently facing,” Sealey said. “This poem is the hope that lies within.”
Read that poem, or listen to Sealey read it aloud, below:
In Defense of “Candelabra with Heads”
If you’ve read the “Candelabra with Heads”
that appears in this collection and the one
in The Animal, thank you. The original,
the one included here, is an example, I’m told,
of a poem that can speak for itself, but loses
faith in its ability to do so by ending with a thesis
question. Yeats said a poem should click shut
like a well-made box. I don’t disagree.
I ask, “Who can see this and not see lynchings?”
not because I don’t trust you, dear reader,
or my own abilities. I ask because the imagination
would have us believe, much like faith, faith
the original “Candelabra” lacks, in things unseen.
You should know that human limbs burn
like branches and branches like human limbs.
Only after man began hanging man from trees
then setting him on fire, which would jump
from limb to branch like a bastard species
of bird, did we come to know such things.
A hundred years from now, October 9, 2116,
8:18 p.m., when all but the lucky are good
and dead, may someone happen upon the question
in question. May that lucky someone be black
and so far removed from the verb lynch that she be
dumbfounded by its meaning. May she then
call up Hirschhorn’s Candelabra with Heads.
May her imagination, not her memory, run wild.