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Poems hold power. As my colleague Hannah Giorgis put it: “Whether by conveying the scale of national grief during a pandemic, or exposing the relentlessness of racism, poetry has already created new ways of experiencing, and surviving, life’s darkest chapters.”
I asked writers and editors from around our newsroom to choose a poem worth revisiting in this fraught moment. Consider memorizing one. Or just let their selections fall over you, stanza by stanza, offering a little bit of solace and a little bit of wonder.
“FROM BLOSSOMS” BY LI-YOUNG LEE
“From Blossoms” is an ode to the small moments and the everyday objects that hold treasured memories. I love the idea that we, too, can carry within us an orchard to soothe our minds during times of crisis. In this heavy moment, Lee’s words remind me that days of sweetness, of joy, and of community still exist, and will one day bloom again.
— Morgan Ome, assistant editor
“LANDLESS ACKNOWLEDGEMENT” BY NATE MARSHALL
What is a homeland for me? maybe a boat? certainly not a country, writes Nate Marshall in “landless acknowledgement,” which is also the opening poem of his new book, FINNA. I’ve been thinking a lot about lineage lately, about the stories we have that tell us who we are and where we come from. And I’ve been thinking about the limitations of tracing those stories for Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. I love how Marshall reimagines the idea of a homeland in this poem, such as when he writes, closest i got to a homeland is not never calling the police. closest i got to a homeland is my daddy’s laugh in a spades game. We’re in a moment that demands taking a history of violence and building something new, and that’s what Marshall does so beautifully in this poem.
— Clint Smith, author of the poetry collection Counting Descent and incoming Atlantic staff writer
“HELIOCENTRIC” BY KEITH S. WILSON
Keith S. Wilson’s poem “Heliocentric” is ostensibly a love letter from an astronaut to someone back on Earth. But along the way, you realize it’s really more of a love letter to space itself—to the whole universe. I promise I still dream / of coming back to you, he says. But the moons over Jupiter. But / asteroids like gods. If someone sent me this letter from space, I’d be pissed. As a reader—especially now, stuck in quarantine and feeling dreamy—I’m enchanted.
“ELEGY” BY ARACELIS GIRMAY
I often turn to Aracelis Girmay’s poetry when the specter of death hangs especially heavy, whether because the news relays a steady stream of racist violence or tragedy makes itself known in my own life. Put differently, I think of her poems when I’m confronted by the mundane responsibility and the immense gift of being alive. “Elegy,” like much of Girmay’s work, collapses the barriers between reader and poet, human and animal, land and sky, briefly creating its own kingdom of touching.
— Hannah Giorgis, staff writer covering culture
“IN BLACKWATER WOODS” BY MARY OLIVER
When we were 19, my best friend from college sent me the first poem I memorized by choice, outside of school assignments. Now a high-school English teacher, he calls certain poems and poets gateways, and this was mine. In middle age, it’s like an old shell I keep in my pocket, edges smoothed from the surf. Its well-worn lines serve as a talisman or a prayer for when grief, ineluctable as the tide, comes for us all.
— Jennifer Adams, associate director of production
I’ve become completely obsessed with Linda Gregg’s work since she died last year. (“Arriving” is a pitch-perfect pandemic poem.) But dark times call for silliness too. Here’s an old favorite I recommend reciting to the next small child you encounter: Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously. For no one we knowses has roses for toeses as Moses supposes his toeses to be!
— Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor
“A LITANY FOR SURVIVAL” BY AUDRE LORDE
This poem captures the heartbreaking frustration of a life led by fear and anxiety, particularly for marginalized folks. Audre declares that we were never meant to survive, which is not meant to be morbid, but rather releases us from the need for validation or security from the powers that be. She reminds us that we too are allowed to speak, love, and take up space in a world that challenges that right. Read this poem when you need reassurance and comfort.
“SIBLINGS” BY PATRICIA SMITH
August marks the 15-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. According to meteorologists, this month also brings a hurricane season that could rival the 2005 one in terms of activity and violence. Patricia Smith’s poem “Siblings,” included in Blood Dazzler, her book of poems considering Katrina’s devastation, personifies the deadly storms of that deadly season, and bids us to be wary of the biggest sister, the blood dazzler.
“EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT” BY DEREK MAHON
The first time I read the title of this poem, I thought I was being punked, and I raced ahead, eager for some Larkinesque acid. How could a serious poet—let alone a superb one, such as Mahon—offer an honest defense of this indefensible phrase? But when I read the poem, one astonishing line after another, I realized the title was sincere. (Sincerus: clean; pure.)
As in a fairy tale, there is only one thing you must grant to have the wish come true—and, as in a fairy tale, it’s no small matter: There will be dying, there will be dying. But once you have made that concession, the world, in its infinite beauty, is yours.
So here I am with cancer, in the midst of a pandemic, and with the world on fire in a hundred different ways—the rough beast a little late, but right on time—looking out my bedroom window as the magnolia tree comes in and out of bloom. Everything is going to be all right.
— Caitlin Flanagan, staff writer
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