Call Us What We Wear by Amanda Gorman Review – Vigilant, Truthful | Poetry
FFrom the moment Amanda Gorman spoke at President Biden’s inauguration on January 20, the effect was spellbinding. A graceful young woman in a bright yellow suit, addressing millions of people – she looked like the sun itself, bathing the audience in its light. This rendition of his poem, The Hill We Climb, had star quality – and his lyrics, pushing for national unity and reconciliation, soared. The feelings might not be out of the ordinary, but their expression was. “The new dawn blooms as we release it./For there’s always light,/If only we’re brave enough to see it./If only we’re brave enough to be.”
Gorman is brave enough to be. And be able to perform at a political rally and both lifting and moving an audience in this way is rare – Martin Luther King’s legacy doesn’t need to be worked on. She is now celebrated as the National Laureate of Young American Poets and could even be described as the country’s dazzling new secular. preacher. For, as his poem Cordage, or Atonement puts it: “Poetry is its own prayer,/The closest words come to the will.
I found it difficult to read Call us what we wear, to separate the poetry from the remembered image of this inauguration recital. fend for themselves on the page, some of the the poems appear incomplete – like unaccompanied minors, awaiting the return of their guardian. They ask to be read aloud. The collection is fiery, committed but uneven. Gorman’s trademark is also, at times, her weakness: she cannot resist echoing words. “Is this going to make us bitter? Or better?” (The shallows); or “As we get closer / To kin” (Back to the past) or “This book is awake. This book is a vigil.” (Ship’s Manifesto). When she succeeds, it’s musical: there’s a sense of exalted pun – sounds like kindred spirits. But as often, the echo is empty and doesn’t deliver enough meaning. That said, she nails a political point by describing the early days of Covid in the United States, in At First, as “unprecedented and presidentless.”
Gorman makes a virtue of telling rather than showing. The poems are emotionally primed and have an aphoristic momentum. And while some images don’t quite stand out (“Hope is the gentle bird / We send across the sea”), the emotion still does (“We’ve lost too much to lose”) and one is grateful for his uncompromising portrayal of the tragedy of the pandemic and the pain of living apart.
Elsewhere, poems such as Fury & Faith are powerful reiterations of important black lives, peaceful rallying cries. She makes sure you know where she came from (sometimes in the deepest sense – as a descendant of slaves). History is her spur: she takes the testimony of Roy Underwood Plummer (1896-1966) with entrepreneurship and uses his soldier’s diary to perform historical ventriloquism. In her vigilant and truthful poems on the Covid, it is as if she took the temperature of the time (feverish, often courageous, sometimes alas without a pulse) while also not neglecting to plunder the past to reflect on other viruses that might inform our experience (she alludes to the famous AIDS quilt and has done extensive research on the Spanish flu). And it’s striking how often the image of a ship pops up (we were, after all, metaphorically in our separate ships during the lockdown).
On the Good Ship Gorman, no one doubts the brilliant intentions of the skipper. She is, throughout, experimentally playful. One poem is in the shape of a lying whale, another an American flag and there is a poem in the shape of a face mask that ends with the line: “Who were we under our mask./Who are we now that ‘it’s ransacked’. In Fugue, she exults “Even now, handshakes and hugs are like gifts”. But she is right in The Unordinary World to express the uncertainty: “The worst is over/According to whom you ask”. For the curious thing, beyond Gorman’s control, is that many poems already seem to be past their expiration date – or (to play his game) their expiration date. The masks were, after all, not trashed and there will be so much more to write about this extraordinary woman.