It is not often that a book of poems lands on the New York Times bestseller list in its first week of publication. It is even less common for a poet’s first book of poems to receive this kind of attention. But this poet is special.
We all met Amanda Gorman at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, where, at only 22, she was the youngest presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history. There have only been five other inaugural poets, starting with Robert Frost for John F. Kennedy in 1961 and including the memorable Maya Angelou for Bill Clinton in 1993. Gorman read “The Hill We Climb” that day in January 2021, and the poem is the final one in this volume.
The first part of Call Us What We Carry is called “Requiem,” which in Gorman’s Catholicism is the usual name of the religious service of the Mass said for the repose of the souls of the dead. This opening section contains a poem titled “At First,” organized into seven stanzas written and designed on the page as text messages. This is the final one:
“Sorry for the long text:
There are no small words in the mouth.
We find the rhetoric of reunion
By letting love reclaim our tongues,
The tip of the teeth.
Our hearts have always
Been in our throats.”
A returning to love, to finding the love in us, is a recurring theme in these poems. But first there is a lot of the American past to encounter, including periods of suffering, waves of immigration and bigotry and misunderstanding, and yes, even the presidency of Donald Trump fills these pages. Sometimes, there is the language of death and sorrow, but more often, tones of hope and rebirth.
Occasionally, there is a sense of frustration and determination, as well. One poem, “There’s No Power Like Home,” begins with these lines:
“We were sick of home,
That mask around our ear
Hung itself into the year.
Once we stepped into our home,
We found ourselves gasping, tear-
ing it off like a bandage,
Like something that gauzed
The great gape of our mouth.”
Readers are surprising book publishers by gobbling up books like this that speak to the pandemic and its effects upon us. We all seem to realize now that the world is going to continue to change, due to what has happened and what is happening. We want to go deeper into understanding it all. Gorman speaks to this in us.
We especially loved how she goes deeper and carries us with her in the poem she calls “Pan.” It begins:
“Pandemic, meaning all people.
all demon. Pandora,
Pan, meaning god
of nature. All people
have meaning, are all-
demon, all-gifted. It is in
our divine nature …”
Other sections of the book are called “Memoria” (which means “memory”), “Fury and Faith,” and “Atonement,” which is often a theological term about being reconciled with God but which Gorman locates in so many places of the American soul. In this section of poems, for instance, she refers to or quotes from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, a letter of a nurse to an Indigenous friend during the flu epidemic of 1918, and Black poet James Weldon Johnson in an early NAACP publication.
There are poems on migrants and migration, on suffering and past sufferings, on American history and its people and past conflicts.
The final section, “Resolution,” includes these lines from a poem called “Closure” that are perhaps the best summary of the spirit of Amanda Gorman and her words for all of us:
“Here is our bond, unbordered by bone.
Perhaps love is how it feels
to breathe the same air.
All we have is time, is now.
times takes us on.
How we are moved says everything
about what we are to each other
& what are we to each other
if not everything.”
That last line was technically a question, but Gorman would not leave it with a question mark.