The Hill We Climb

Mr. President, Dr. Biden, Madam Vice President, 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 just-ice
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 that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a 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 we can reach out our arms
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
That is the promise to glade
The hill we climb
If only we dare
It’s 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 at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we 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 my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
We will rise from the gold-limbed 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
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and 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

Amanda Gorman,
the twenty-two-year-old poet that made the world proud as the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post; Lily illustration]

January 20th, 2021

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

June 25th, 2017

Look || See || Feel

The Emptiness Within

Jay DeFeo
b. 1929 Hanover, NH
d. 1989 Oakland, CA

The Eyes, 1958, Graphite pencil on paper, 42 × 84 3/4 in. (106.7 × 215.3 cm).

The artist inscribed the back of this drawing with a stanza from a poem by Philip Lamantia, a fellow member of San Francisco’s Beat community: ”Tell him I have eyes only for Heaven as I look to you Queen Mirror of the Heavenly Court”.

The 2017 Whitney Biennial

June 10th, 2017

Oh, Emily…!

Otis Allen Bullard (1816-1853)
Emily Elizabeth, Austin and Lavinia Dickinson
Oil on canvas, ca. 1840

This portrait of Emily Dickinson (left) with her brother Austin (centre) and sister Lavinia (right) was painted by Otis Allen Bullard in early 1840, when Emily was nine years old. Her short auburn hair is striking and it is fitting that this early image of the poet shows her holding a book and a flower, though it is unclear whether the book is an illustrated publication or Dickinson’s own album of pressed botanical specimens, which she had likely started the year before. The intimate bond between Dickinson and her siblings portrayed here is one that lasted until her death at age fifty-five in 1886. 


Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
”Honey grows every where”

Fragment transcribed by Mabel Loomis Todd, ca. 1890s

Amherst College archives holds nearly nine hundred transcriptions of Dickinson’s manuscripts made by Mabel Loomis Todd and her assistants during the 1890s. No piece of Dickinson’s writing was too small, as illustrated by Todd’s attempt to turn this slim piece of paper with barely legible handwriting into something worthy of publication. 


The entire gallery was lined with floral wallpaper from Emily Dickinson’s bedroom in Amherst.


William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Shakespeare’s Plays
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1847 [i.e. 1844-47]

The Dickinson family owned at least six different editions of books by and about William Shakespeare. This volume is typical of the wave of illustrated editions of his works published throughout the nineteenth century. Dickinson mentions Shakespeare by name in thirteen of her letters on one poem, but traces of his influence can be detected throughout her writing. Her friend and future editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson made a note after visiting Dickinson in 1870: ”After long disuse of her eyes she read Shakespeare & thought why is any other book needed?”


Photographer unknown
Emily Dickinson
Daguerreotype, ca. 1847

This iconic portrait of Emily Dickinson – with her steady gaze and dark hair – is the only authenticated photograph of the poet. It was likely made in Amherst between December 1846 and late March 1847, when Dickinson was sixteen years old. Dickinson’s name was never inscribed on the daguerreotype, but its authenticity is based on the provenance of the item: Lavinia Dickinson gave it to a relative, Wallace Keep, and it remained in the family until 1956 when it was donated to Amherst College. It is not clear why Lavinia gave away such an important keepsake of her sister. 


Emily Dickinson, Daguerreotype, ca. 1847.
The Emily Dickinson Collection, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.


From ”I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson”, an exhibition that ran through May 28, 2017.

One of the most popular and enigmatic American writers of the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) wrote almost 1,800 poems. Nevertheless, her work was essentially unknown to contemporary readers since only a handful of poems were published during her lifetime and a vast trove of her manuscripts was not discovered until after her death in 1886.

The Morgan Library & Museum

May 7th, 2017

I want, to kill you, O time who devastates…

The original from Paul Verlaine’s book of Symbolist Poetry:

Je veux, pour te tuer, ô temps qui me dévastes,
Remonter jusqu’aux jours bleuis des amours chastes
Et bercer ma luxure et ma honte au bruit doux
De baisers sur Sa main et non plus dans Leurs cous.
Le Tibère effrayant que je suis à cette heure,
Quoi que j’en aie, et que je rie ou que je pleure,
Qu’il dorme ! pour rêver, loin d’un cruel bonheur,
Aux tendrons pâlots dont on ménageait l’honneur
Ès-fêtes, dans, après le bal sur la pelouse,
Le clair de lune quand le clocher sonnait douze.

Artwork: 

Bust of a Young Girl Wearing a Beret
France or The Netherlands
mid 16th (?) or 19th (?) century
Polychromed terra-cotta

The Morgan Library & Museum

May 7th, 2017

“Other friends have flown before— On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”*

To Mr. Poe

Thank you for all your brilliant madness.
Pain and destruction births many great artists, but ultimately causes their demise.
I wonder if you are somewhere in the great ether(?), witnessing the events that you set in motion.

Nevertheless, rest easy

– anonymous artist

Poe’s Memorial Grave, Baltimore

* The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe

April 26th, 2017

887 @ BAM

887 Murray Avenue, Quebec City, Canada.The apartment block where the play’s main – and only – character actually grew up becomes alive, with the help of an incredible off-stage crew, in the form of a giant dollhouse.
Robert Lepage, who also wrote and directed this deeply personal, autobiographical play,  invites us to join him on a journey into the realm of memory. On the way, he revisits his childhood home; shares anecdotes about his friends and family; commemorates names of parks, streets and monuments – places often forgotten or no longer noticed; recalls Charles De Gaulle’s call for a Free Quebec, the time he famously ended his July 24, 1967 speech with a loud and clear ”Vive le Québec libre!”, in Montreal.

The same words that were used as a slogan by Front de Libération du Québec, the separatist group that had launched a series of terror attacks in 1963, a campaign that culminated with the kidnapping and killing of Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte, in October 1970.
The trip starts with a struggle: Lepage is invited to recite ”Speak White”, a poem by the Quebecoise Michèle Lalonde, in an evening commemorating the anniversary of a poetry event that first took place in Montreal, in 1970. But, for reasons that he cannot explain, the more he tries to memorize the worlds, the more they elude him. 

So he turns to the method of loci, an ancient technique in which the items to be remembered are placed in specific places (”palace rooms”) one associates with past experiences or childhood memories. In order to retrieve them, all Lepage had to do was revisit the right ”palace room”. And we were only too happy to follow him along.

”Speak White” refers to the oppressive orders shouted at the enslaved across North American plantations, forbidding them to speak their own languages, incomprehensible to their masters. ”Speak White” was also used to shame francophone Canadians and force them to adopt the language of the British Empire.
The ”palace room” method worked; in the end, Lepage did recite the poem and it was powerful, emotional – flawless. Ironically, the most compelling performance we’d seen thus far in New York was by a francophone Canadian, translated into English.

Speak White by Michèle Lalonde: original in French and translation in English.

[…]
Speak white
Tell us again about Freedom and Democracy

We know that liberty is a black word
Just as poverty is black
And just as blood mixes with dust in the streets of Algiers
And Little Rock
[…]

All images by Erick Labbé.

887 @ BAM

March 25th, 2017

Moonlight Sonata

Let me come with you. What a moon there is tonight!
The moon is kind – it won’t show
that my hair turned white. The moon
will turn my hair to gold again. You wouldn’t understand.
Let me come with you.

When there’s a moon the shadows in the house grow larger,
invisible hands draw the curtains,
a ghostly finger writes forgotten words in the dust
on the piano – I don’t want to hear them. Hush.

Verses long forgotten come to mind. From the poem by Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990), Η σονάτα του σεληνόφωτος / Moonlight sonata.

As always in poetry, nuance is lost in translation. But it is this or none at all.

October 16th, 2016