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Book Review: Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman

In her 2021 collection of poems Call Us What We Carry, presidential inaugural poet Amanda Gorman responds to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent isolation; to racial uprising; to wrongs of society past and present; to richness of human contact. Gorman puts into words the hidden wounds that many of us carry from the past years, helping us bring them to light and healing. Her words, meant to be absorbed slowly, illuminate a path forward out of grief and trauma. Above all, Gorman’s poetry shows our human need for each other.

To help us begin to understand the trauma of the pandemic, Gorman addresses specifics. For example, in her poem “Fugue” she writes:

Every cough seemed catastrophe, Every proximate person a potential peril. We mapped each sneeze & sniffle, Certain the virus we had run away from Was now running through us. We slept the days down. We wept the year away, Frayed & afraid. [pp. 12–13]

Gorman is slowly looking through the closet, garment by garment, examining the fear, naming the loneliness. Perhaps the first step of healing is acknowledging what has happened. Gorman’s poem “In the Deep” mourns the loss of normalcy:

The funerals without families, Weddings in waiting, The births in isolation. Let no one again Have to begin, love, or end, alone. [p. 41]

In “School’s Out,” Gorman responds with a fierce determination:

Graduation day. We don’t need a gown. We don’t need a stage. We are walking beside our ancestors, Their drums roar for us, Their feet stomp at our life. There is power in being robbed & still choosing to dance. [p. 18]

Gorman brings up one of the most tangible results of the pandemic in “There’s No Power Like Home” when she says, “That mask around our ear / hung itself into the year.” She continues with an action we recognize:

Once we stepped into our home, We found ourselves gasping, tear- ing it off like a bandage. [p. 19]

In “What We Did in the Time Being,” she references online connections:

We grasped our loved ones By the slash of a screen, Felt ourselves Zoombies. [p. 20]

Moving on from the specifics of the pandemic, Gorman addresses the intergenerational effects of trauma on the human experience. A phrase in her piece “Memorial” explores the power of the poet in storytelling, in creating memory—perhaps revealing what inspired Gorman to create this work: “It is the poet who pounds the past back into you” (p.74). She continues her march toward exposure of history in her poem “Pre-Memory”: “There is nothing so agonizing, or so dangerous, as memory unexpressed, unexplored, unexplained & unexploded. Grief is the grenade that always goes off” (p.78).

In “The Soldiers (or Plummer),” Gorman explores the uncanny way history seems to revisit us with a look at a diary of a White Corporal in World War I during the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Previously, Gorman noted that “the ‘Spanish’ influenza did not originate in Spain. In fact, the first recorded case was in the United States” (p. 81), acknowledging the racial disparities brought to light with the crisis.

Tying the past to the present and bringing the racial protests of 2020 into stark detail, “America” and “Fury and Faith”—black pages with white typeface—speak of Black lives, of protests, of standing up to police. As a daughter of a Black single mother, Gorman speaks from the perspective of the marginalized and gives voice to stories of the past—not only her own, but that of other groups who have been silenced or “othered” (p. 141).

Throughout Call Us What We Carry, Gorman offers pathways out of despair, if we are willing to take them. We can become storytellers; we can become peacemakers. In her poem “War: What, Is It Good?” Gorman writes,

All this to say, Writing our stories Is an essential service. It is how we go to war. Most importantly, It is how we end it. We’re still willing to believe Peace is a place on earth. . . . To love just may be The fight of our lives. [pp. 122–124]

In her final poem “The Hill We Climb,” which Gorman penned for President Joe Biden’s Inauguration, she offers a fitting challenge for the future:

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, Then love becomes our legacy, And change, our children’s birthright. [p. 210]

Demonstrating a wisdom beyond her years, Gorman offers hope for our children, for our divided communities, for families and churches and schools torn apart by religious and political agendas, by pursuing mercy as a starting point. As we view our fellow humans through a merciful lens, we can find the right path and learn how to use power to do good. The pandemic exposed faults in the bedrock of our society; now, we can name these and move forward. Gorman’s depth of research into past hurts of many cultures can help us inform the future.

For those who acknowledge the shared pain of past years and histories, Call Us What We Carry offers a way of sorting through grief, of exposing harm, of finding a way back together as a united humanity. It attempts to turn some of history’s darkest moments into steppingstones for a better, more honest future, one in which every person is valued and no memory is disregarded. We would do well to take notice.

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