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poetry Inaugural

Pultizer-prize winning poet Jericho Brown speaks to this critical moment—“the single item on the agenda”—that inspires hope at “this American hour of our lives.”

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Inaugural

By Jericho Brown

We were told that it is dangerous to touch
And yet we journeyed here, where what we believe
Meets what must be done. You want to see, in spite
Of my mask, my face. We imagine, in time

Of disease, our grandmothers
Whole. We imagine an impossible
America and call one another
A fool for doing so. Grown up from the ground,

Thrown out of the sea, fallen from the sky,
No matter how we’ve come, we’ve come a mighty
Long way. If I touch any of you, if I
Shake one hand, I am nearer another

Beginning. Can’t you feel it? The trouble
With me is I’m just like you. I don’t want
To be hopeful if it means I’ve got to be
Naïve. I’ve bent so low in my hunger,

My hair’s already been in the soup,
And when I speak it’s just beneath my self-
Imposed halo. You’ll forgive me if you can
Forgive yourself. I forgive you as you build

A museum of weapons we soon visit
Just to see what we once were. I forgive us
Our debts. We were told to wake up grateful,
So we try to fall asleep that way. Where, then,

Shall we put our pains when we want rest?
I don’t carry a knife, but I understand
The desperation of those who do,
Which is why I am recounting the facts

As calmly as I can. The year is new,
And we mean to use our imaginations.
One of us wants to raise George Stinney
From the dead. One of us wants a small vial

Of the sweat left on Sylvia Rivera’s
Headband. Some want to be the music made
Magical by Bill Withers’s stutter.
Others come with maps and magnifying

Glasses and graphite pencils to find
Locations beside the mind where we are not
Patrolled or surveilled or corralled or chained.
I, myself, have come to reclaim the teeth

In George Washington’s mouth and plant them
In the backyards of big houses that are not
In my name. My cousins want to share
A single bale of the cotton our mothers

Picked as children. I would love to live
In a country that lets me grow old.
I long. I long for that. We are otherwise
Easily satisfied. Where do we get

Tangerines for cheap? Can we make it
There on the Metro? How hot is the fire
Fairy blister of chocolate chipotle sauce,
And will you judge me if I taste it? But now,

We’ve put our hunger down for the time it takes
To come and reconcile ourselves to the land
Because it is holy, to the water
Because it swallowed our ancestors,

To the air because we are dumb enough
To decide on something as difficult
As love. If no one’s punishment leads to
My salvation, then accountability

Is what waits. It moves citizens, mends nations.
That’s for us to prove. That’s the deed to witness.
That’s the single item on the agenda
Read in Braille or by eye, ink drying like blood

Spilled this American hour of our lives.

Jericho Brown is the director of the creative-writing program at Emory University. He has written three collections of poetry, including “The Tradition,” which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and was published by Copper Canyon Press.