The following is a guest post by Rhosean Asmah, who recently finished a virtual summer internship at the Poetry and Literature Center.
This post is part of our “Literary Treasures” series, which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”
As an intern with the Poetry and Literature Center this summer, one of my primary tasks was to go through the Archive of Recorded Literature and Poetry (ARPL), listening to and timestamping the recordings within. Of the many recordings I listened to, my favorite was a 1995 reading featuring Claudia Rankine and David Mura. I first listened to the recording early in the summer, a time that coincided with a racial reckoning across the United States. Rankine and Mura’s poems about race and identity struck me because of how timely they felt—the messages coming through their poems written decades prior were the same ones I was seeing in educational Instagram posts and think pieces about the non-White experience in the U.S. I’ve listened to the reading many times since, and each listen only increases my appreciation of Rankine and Mura’s work. In addition to race and identity, the two poets also address the topics of love, family, history, and ancestry with a great deal of insight and understanding. I never get tired of listening to this reading, so I’d like to take the time to share some highlights.
Claudia Rankine was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963, and moved to the U.S. when she was seven. She is the author of several poetry collections, including Nothing in Nature is Private (1992) and The End of the Alphabet (1998), both of which include poems she reads during the recording. More recently, Rankine has published Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) and Just Us: An American Conversation (2020), both to notable acclaim.
Born in 1952, David Mura is a third-generation Japanese American, or Sansei, as he often says in the reading. He has published a number of poetry collections, including After We Lost Our Way (1989) and The Colors of Desire (1994), which contain the poems he reads in the reading. Mura is also the author of Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei (1991), a highly acclaimed memoir.
In this post, I only examine a few poems from the reading, but I of course recommend listening to the entire recording! You’ll also notice that there are instances in which quoted excerpts from the poems may not reflect proper line breaks or punctuation; I’ve marked each of these cases with an asterisk (*). Because my internship was virtual (due to the pandemic), I wasn’t able to check out the books the poems appeared in from the Library, and I wasn’t always able to find the text online.
Rankine begins the reading with her poem “American Light.” She prefaces it by saying, “Sometimes we move through life and it’s easy to forget that [the United States] is as amazing and also as troubled as it is.”
The poem begins on a road where there are birds, puddles of rain, and shining light. A little later, it is revealed that there is an oak tree casting a dark shadow on the road, too. Light and shadow become prominent themes in the poem: the light represents what is good and beautiful about the U.S., while the shadow represents the country’s dark history, particularly slavery and its legacy today. The relationship between light and shadow comes to a head in the following lines:
And still the light
fills wind-tossed branches,
makes clouds iridescent
islands in the sky. And still
the same light (for nothing
in nature is private)
insists on a shadow in the road.
The light, responsible for beautiful things like clouds, also makes the shadow. Further, not only does the light create the shadow, but it insists on the shadow. Rankine shows that the amazing and troubled parts of the U.S. are inextricably connected, and that those amazing parts often ensure the longevity of the troubled parts. Rankine doesn’t include specific examples, but they aren’t hard to come up with, especially during a time when we’re all thinking more about the fundamental inequities embedded in American systems. For example, all Americans have the right to vote, but the legal system that allows for that also makes it legal to disenfranchise felons, who are disproportionately Black, and gerrymander other citizens (generally people of color) in and out of districts, affecting the impact of their vote.
At the end of the poem, the speaker, who feels troubled by the dark, shadowy parts of the road, wonders:
…when the sun
goes down on this aged,
dirt road, will I end
in dark woods, or make it home?
I like this ending because of its ambiguity. In the context of the poem, “make it home” could either mean the speaker embraces the woods for what it is, settles down, and makes it somewhere they can live, or that they get out of the woods and return home, wherever that may be. No matter the interpretation, the speaker faces a choice that requires them to, in some way, overcome what they experienced on the road. The poem doesn’t show the speaker’s decision, but I believe Rankine offers an answer herself. By writing the poem, a truthful acknowledgement of how the U.S. is simultaneously wonderful and horrible, Rankine has made America her home—by recognizing, accepting, and sharing what it is.
During the reading, Rankine also reads several poems about personal darkness and pain. My favorite of these poems is “This Life.”
This poem begins with the speaker describing how they, almost every hour, sweep whatever darkness they can outside until the inside is filled with light. At some point, though, the blinds on the windows are closed, dust begins to settle, and the room is no longer bright. Following that, the speaker’s hurt and pain—their personal darkness—come flooding in, and they begin to cry. With these images, Rankine shows the relentless nature of darkness and pain in life and the constant effort it takes to keep them out. Of the darkness, she says, “…for what is hardest will exist in the world, an intrusion that is forever.”*
Rankine shows that darkness is always there and that it is impossible to be free of it. However, she also offers listeners some hope with the lines, “Still the desire lives to shift its weight, to stand up under it, to bring it forward out of its awkwardness, out of our breasts, like disappointment hovered over by flesh. All this life, we are unable to rest.”*
Though these lines still present life as an unending battle with darkness, they also reveal that there is a strong desire to resist the darkness and move forward. For me, it implies that by addressing your pain and darkness, you can lessen your burden—a necessary reminder of how to deal with the hard things in life.
Several poems later, David Mura’s section of the reading begins. His poem “Letters from an Internment Camp, 1942-1945” takes place during World War II and features a Japanese American man writing from an internment camp to his wife, who is in a different camp. During WWII, the U.S. government ordered that people of Japanese descent, the majority of them Americans citizens, be placed in isolated camps due to the fear that they were spies for Japan.
In the poem, the man talks about a lot of things—other people in the camp, what life was like before, and what life is like elsewhere. He intersperses these descriptions with his thoughts and feelings—of nostalgia, betrayal, wonder—so there are many striking moments in the poem. For example, when discussing the food in the camp, the man says, “No emperor would ever feed his people so harshly!”*
For me, this short line conveys not only how betrayed the man feels by his government, but also how unimaginable the internment camps must have seemed to those forced to live in them. At the same time, the line also has an undeniable sense of reality: It’s hard to believe that a government would imprison its own citizens and feed them “putrid, grey beans,” but that is exactly the case.
Later in the poem, the man describes how some of the people around him have responded to life in the camp, saying: “I look around me and see many honest men who hide their beauty as best they can. I think that’s what the whites hate: our beauty. The way we carry the land and life of plants inside us, seedlings and fruit, flowers and the flushed tree, fields freed of weeds. Oh, why can’t they see the doors inside them?”*
With these lines, Mura perfectly captures how people shrink themselves when they’ve been hurt. It’s completely heartbreaking to hear everything that makes these people in the camps beautiful and know that they try to minimize and hide it in order to not be a target. Throughout the poem, there are many moments full of a similar emotion and gravity. With these, Mura really brings listeners into the poem, giving them a personal look into a moment of American history we don’t hear enough about.
Mura also reads “Long Kong,” a poem from the perspective of an Asian American disc jockey and which he describes as a “cross between poetry and performance.” How Mura reads the poem may be my favorite thing about it. His fast-paced and excited reading filled with elongated syllables and a variety of voices truly embodies the persona of a disc jockey, making it sound exactly like listening to the radio.
The disc jockey covers a number of topics, generally looking at the intersections between race, sex, and gender in American culture. For example, he talks about how Asians are rarely seen as frightening and often used as comic relief as well as how homosexuality is viewed generally, and specifically in the Asian community. One thing that really sticks with me long after listening to the poem is the ending. After reading a statistic about the overrepresentation of White men in high-level management positions, despite the percentage of women and people of color in the workforce, the disk jockey says, “Oh, do I detect a conspiracy here? Say it ain’t so, Toto, say it ain’t so. Oh, I do believe in America, I do believe in America, I do believe in America!”*
The lines seem to draw on The Wizard of Oz film, in which the Cowardly Lion repeatedly proclaims, “I do believe in spooks!” In the movie, the Tin Man had just said he didn’t believe in spooks (i.e., ghosts) and then was suddenly pulled up into the air and thrown back down (presumably by the spooks). I believe the disc jockey parodies the Cowardly Lion’s phrase with a sense of irony. Announcing a belief in America will hopefully protect him. However, given that the poem is already a testament to the many stereotypes and inequities present in American culture, the disc jockey is suggesting that America has harmed him and will likely continue to do so.
By drawing on the identities that are important to them and the lived experiences of people across time, Rankine and Mura teach their listeners about the nature of life and the reality of life in the United States. The poets remind their listeners about what it’s like to be alive, show them what they all share, and open their eyes to what they don’t. Every time I listen to Rankine and Mura’s poems, I learn more about the world and the people in it—exactly why I love the reading so much.