Poetry

Allison Adelle Coke Hedge:
“America, I Sing You Back”

 

“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.

 

From Streaming, copyright © 2014 by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. Reprinted by permission of Coffee House Press.
Watch Hedge Coke on the PBS program News Hour and read more about the genesis of this poem.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s books include a memoir, Rock Ghost, Willow, Deer, poetry books The Year of the Rat, Dog Road Woman, Off-Season City Pipe, Blood Run, Burn, Streaming, the forthcoming Look at This Blue from Coffee House Press, and a play Icicles. She directs the Along the Chaparral project, the Sandhill Crane Retreat and UCR Writers Week. She is the editor of several anthologies, including Sing: Poetry of the Indigenous Americas, Effigies, Effigies II, andEffigies III and is a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Riverside. Hedge Coke came of age working fields, factories, and waters and is currently at work on a film, Red Dust: resiliency in the dirty thirties, a new CD, and new poems. Read more on her UCR faculty page and personal website.

 

Commentary by Amanda Moore

The poems we have had the good fortune to feature in recent weeks by luminaries Evie Shockley, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Marilyn Chin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, and Joy Harjo have offered perspectives on America, democracy, and voting, and they have instructed and educated us through experience and example. This array of voices has highlighted divisions and discrepancies while nevertheless offering and arguing for unity and hope. I can think of no better poem to add to the mix than today’s feature, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s “America, I Sing You Back.”

Hedge Coke’s poem opens with two dedications, a personal one which includes the poet’s father, and a second to Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, whose poems also reference song and America, notably Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” which examines the “varied carols” of Americans such as the carpenter, mason, and wood-cutter, and Hughes’ “I, Too,” which insists on his own inclusion as “the darker brother” in the nation’s song. In evoking these voices and poems, Hedge Coke declares her own poem’s lineage and widens the scope of the American chorus to include her voice, female and indigenous. She places her poem in context and conversation with those that have come before, all the while staking a claim on what makes her poem and voice distinct.

The poem’s title and first stanza announce their departure from the poem’s predecessors by speaking directly to America in the second-person point of view, establishing an intimacy that is more immediate than the Whitman and Hughes poems, which refer to America exclusively in the third-person. Hedge Coke’s speaker does go on to employ this point of view as well, but she begins in address: “America, I sing back.” Of course we hear the reference to Whitman and Hughes here, and because she has opened the door to other voices and poets as part of her dedication, I am also reminded of Allen Ginsburg’s poem of address, “America.” In it, Ginsburg accuses and interrogates America, employing both outrage and occasional humor. He declares in his opening “I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing,” a contrast from the gentler, more compassionate tone Hedge Coke strikes as she declares her desire to “Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.” Both second-person openings acknowledge that America isn’t always a virtuous, generous, or reasonable institution, and while Ginsburg’s poem goes on to describe her failings at length, Hedge Coke shifts to the past, telling the story of America’s development as a way of contextualizing the need to “Sing back the moment you cherished breath.”

This shift into narrative is also the shift into third-person, which Hedge Coke uses to establish the speaker’s maternal relationship with the country, recalling “Before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep, / held her cradleboard, wept her into day.” The poem is a creation story, one in which the speaker assumes the role of creator, one who acts upon America, rather than the other way around. Hers is the first song, and she is the one who “prepared [America’s] delivery, / held her severed cord beautifully beaded.” By establishing herself as mother, and a benevolent, patient one at that, the speaker assumes a primary role in the country and its origins, reframing a narrative in which Native Americans are merely victims of the colonial machine. The poem doesn’t seek to erase the horrors of a country that has consistently terrorized and exploited indigenous people and land, but reclaiming America as something mothered into existence by an indigenous woman certainly offers hope that this wayward child can be sung back into a better version of herself.

To frame America as a child who makes mistakes “as any child might do” is ultimately to offer the possibility of redemption and restoration. The child “pushe[s] herself away” and brings her mother to tears, but the mother is undaunted. Despite the pain, she proclaims “here I am, here I am, here I remain,” steadfast in her commitment to her child and “prepared to pour forth singing,” the very act of this poem. As a mother and an American myself, I find comfort in the speaker’s confidence that she alone holds the power to turn things around, and her proclamation that “sing again I will, as I have always done” is a buoying statement of certainty.

Often poems that consider America wrestle with the tension between the country’s potential and its reality, weighing the way it can harm against the gifts it has to offer. Considering Hedge Coke’s poem in this light brings to mind one final work I see as part of its poetic lineage: Claude McKay’s sonnet “America.” McKay’s speaker wrestles with a country that, like a cruel mother, feeds him “bread of bitterness,/ And sinks into [his] throat her tiger’s tooth.” He comes to “love this cultured hell,” but does so with effort and at a cost to himself. Both McKay’s and Hedge Coke’s speakers love America in spite of the pain she causes, but loving the country as a mother is markedly different than loving her as a subject of her actions. The personification in many poems about America hints at the complexity of how people experience the institution. America is not human, but we nevertheless forge relationships with it that mirror relationships we have with friends, family, and even adversaries. Hedge Coke’s choice of a maternal connection is effective because a parent, inherently imbued with a certain amount of power and influence over a child, ideally wants the best for that child’s growth and development. Whereas many other speakers are observers or victims of America, this speaker has control.

For me, the heart of the poem is its exploration of details familiar to many mothers, including the tender moments of first steps and the difficult experiences of separation. The familiarity of these moments renders America precious to me, even in her tantrums. I also appreciate that the speaker, while selfless in her endurance, concludes with an expression of her ultimate authority. She sheds tears and bides time but knows she has the power to “call [America] back to cradle… to behold herself.” No passive, permissive parent, this mother will, in the end, demand her child return and reckon with the person she has become. This powerful note asserts the authority of the speaker and also offers a future to look forward to, one in which wrongs will be righted and a new path into light will be forged. In moments of darkness and uncertainty, this is the mother we long for—one who is strong and certain, who can quell our doubts by her quiet assurance: “My song will make it so.”

Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published with HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets. She lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter.

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