Before and after I hit “send” I was second-guessing myself. Should I call my presentation a name that could easily be misinterpreted as presumptuous ego? It was, after all, a church—albeit Unitarian.
But I thought I could make the case. Poets are, above all, truth tellers. From the ledge of poet mind, we see clearly what’s going on. From here we can cut through agendas and gaslighting to speak what everyone deep down knows to be true. As such, I could tell the churchgoers, poets are writing contemporary scripture.
Right up until I signed on to the Zoom call, I wasn’t sure how it would land. I started with a poem about the role of poetry, especially now.
these days i need poems
between my fingers
bulking my pillows
spinning off the ceiling fan
It ends with:
i need poemspoemspoemspoems
a universe of nothing but—
just to keep the light on
just to keep my head
in a world gone madmadmad
Everyone was in thumbnail pictures with only a few showing at the top of my screen. Their microphones were muted while I presented, so I could neither see nor hear their reactions.
When I was done the moderator told them to unmute and provide feedback. The roll call of appreciation was gratifying, but one woman whose voice was breaking the whole time gave me all the validation I needed:
“I’ve been feeling all alone at the edge of the abyss, thinking this must be the end. Your poems today made me feel like I’m not alone, like there is hope.”
Listening to her, I had to fight back tears myself. It made me grateful to live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city where poets can identify as prophets and be understood and honored as such, where people know that Lorca was Franco’s first casualty and Neruda is still mourned almost fifty years on. Here, where the government in Washington D.C. would not allow statehood until 1912, perhaps too troubled by the large indigenous and Latinx population with a history of colonial resistance going back to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Here, where a dozen University of New Mexico students were bayonetted by the National Guard during anti-war protests in 1970. Here, where we had the good sense to elect a progressive mayor and a governor who is steadfastly adhering to public health protocol recommended by scientists—and our COVID19 outcomes are far better than those of Texas to our southeast and Arizona to our west. Here, where in the aftermath of the protests in May and June, artists took their paints and brushes to the boarded-up buildings downtown and covered them with one beautiful mural after another.
So why was the Unitarian parishioner feeling alone at the edge of the abyss? Was it that she hadn’t seen her adult children and grandchildren in six months? Was it that armed militia showed up to our protests, harassing and intimidating protestors, ultimately managing to shoot a protestor? Was it that we had so many police shootings of civilians that Obama’s Justice Department provided oversight, and under the current Administration they are still happening with alarming frequency? Was it that we had federal troops recently dispatched to our city at the invitation of the County Sheriff, supposedly to help solve a murder and reduce violent crime?
My eyes welled up with hers when she said what she said, because I know it is all of that and more. Reasonable people here and throughout the United States of America are worried to the edge of despair. We see the fast slide to authoritarianism. We see the incitement to vigilante civil war: every time we look in the mirror we see who has been labeled the enemy for the hateful and the heavily armed. We see a parade of corrupt officials and war criminals being pardoned and set free, while the children of desperate asylum seekers are ripped from their mothers’ arms and locked up in cages. We read the headlines that he is sending police to the polling stations, that he is leading chants of “Twelve more years! Twelve more years!” We take out our useless passports and know that we can’t leave even if he steals the election. His fantasy denial of the virus has completely walled us in.
Tonight as I write this paragraph a lone trumpeter is playing taps at nearby Kirtland Air Force Base, just as they do at a soldier’s funeral. It happens every night at 10. Seems a fitting soundtrack for the gloomy scene I just portrayed. But I refuse to accept its mournful finality. I think of the centuries of dogged resistance by the people of this land. I think of those who marched and suffered and died to secure the right to vote. I think of twenty minutes of poetry and talk of poetry that pulled a congregation in my city back from the abyss. I can only conclude:
i am a poet and my task is immense
i cannot do it alone
but an army of poets can kiss the world awake
Consider yourself recruited.
“i need poems” excerpted from Rock Paper Scissors (Swimming With Elephants Publications, 2018)
“i am a poet” excerpted from Spirit Birds They Told Me (West End Press, 2011)
Mary Oishi, Albuquerque Poet Laureate, is author of Spirit Birds They Told Me and co-author of Rock Paper Scissors, and is published in translation in 12 Poetas: Antologia De Nuevos Poetas Estadounidense (La Herrata Feliz and MarEsCierto, 2017). She is also a public radio personality and lifelong activist.