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Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days written by Rachel Zucker


Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days written by Rachel Zucker


The result is a work that documents the political and personal events of those crucial days through a variety of contemporary poetic voices, from the ebullient to the admiring, from the pithy to the loquacious.

Editors Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg explain in their enthusiastic introduction: “In those jittery, pre-inaugural hours, it became clear to us that our exhilaration stemmed, in part, from the knowledge that we were not alone in our enthusiasm. We knew others felt called to action just as we were. That same afternoon we compiled an e-mail list of poets—friends, acquaintances, and folks we admire—from across the country and across generations. Could we get one hundred poets to commit to writing a new poem during the first one hundred carefully watched days of the new presidency? And could we get them to respond overnight, so that our project would coincide with Barack Obama beginning his job? Yes, we could! Poets wrote back immediately and with gusto.”

Difficult to categorize but easy to enjoy, the poems in Starting Today offer something for every type of poetry reader, from the novice to the seasoned. This smart, timely collection offers a swirling portrait of the American Zeitgeist—a poetic reportage that demonstrates spontaneity, collaboration, immediacy, and accessibility.


Starting Today contains 100 poems written during—and responding to—Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office. The poems included in this anthology, except for Elizabeth Alexander’s inauguration poem, were all written no more than a day before they appeared on the popular blog “Starting Today: Poems for the First 100 Days” . The result is a work that documents the political and personal events of those crucial days through a variety of contemporary poetic voices, from the ebullient to the admiring, from the pithy to the loquacious.

Publishers Weekly

This varied anthology began as a blog—the editors sent out a call to poets asking them to write original poems on an assigned day during the critical first 100 days of Obama's presidency, responding somehow to the day's news; the results were published daily online. The book that the blog became begins with Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem (“Say it plain: that many have died for this day”) and continues with 99 other pieces by poets young and old, including Cornelius Eady, David Lehman, and Mark Doty. The poems range from the slyly earnest (“I know/ it's hard to believe but/ the new president said science,” writes Matthew Rohrer), the downright funny (“I have 'invented' and am promoting a neologism/ for the perineum: the boyband,” writes Mark Bibbins in a poem you'll have to read to learn how it's tied to Obama), the hopeful (“I think I feel my limbs again,” says Brenda Shaughnessy) to, of course, the highly politicized, as in Thomas Sayers Ellis's “First Grade, All Over Again”: “This is not something/ the minority expects the majority/ to accept, reconciliation.” While newer poetry readers might not recognize all the names, there's something here for everyone. (Apr.)



University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2010 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-871-4

Chapter One

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER Praise Song for the day 1 day Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other's eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair. Someone is trying to make music somewhere, with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum, with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice. A woman and her son wait for the bus. A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin. We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider. We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of some one and then others, who said I need to see what's on the other side. I know there's something better down the road. We need to find a place where we are safe. We walk into that which we cannot yet see. Say it plain: that manyhave died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of. Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables. Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself, others by first do no harm or take no more than you need. What if the mightiest word is love? Love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light, love with no need to preempt grievance. In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, any thing can be made, any sentence begun. On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp, praise song for walking forward in that light. MATTHEW ROHRER Poem 2 day On Tuesday at noon the sun suddenly came out I swear I said to my daughter something was happening but what and the stars don't care about us who we elect or when we listen to the radio and hear it say President Obama is going to shut down the prison the stars don't care they are forever exploding hydrogen atoms slowly depleting dying like us to them if they thought at all they'd think everything we do is in prison the president said we could write poems again saying "president" that people would have to think about not just understand like he said "science is coming, people" to which my son said "did he say science?" I said "I know it's hard to believe but the new president said science" MARTHA SILANO His Springboard resolve 3 day For his firmness is most fog horn. For he's darning our fraying hem with fine thread; for he's following a plan. Be it a progression from detention to due process. Be it a declaration of Middle East and market collapse mazes unmazed. Be it settled. From this day forward, a little less fetus, a lot more science. From this day forward, more angles, more angels. In with the fluent, out with the foibles. In with the factual, out with the furrowed. In with fine-tuning, out with the cudgels. Today, the shimmery window of the immediate. More from those who pray in a mosque, in a temple. Less from the evangelical. More service, less fretting. More figuring, less guessing. More giving, less getting. No bitching.

Coming to a theatre near you, an outrageous congruity. Coming to that theatre, an unprecedented logic. Coming soon, endpoints. Soon to come, time frames.

The sun is rising over rising water, over the desert's drying, over the dead and the dying. The sun is rising; let it inflame us.


Overwinter 4 day

We have been waiting out the winter for eight years. I don't pretend to talk for you or my neighbors- but I have been given permission to speak on behalf of mollusks, insects, and various wily birds. This is the price and the pleasure of a new president: those who were hushed now feel like they can finally chatter and natter- flex wing and leg freely. The clutch of snails on the fence post near my house can finally unclench retreat to damp underboards of the tool shed. And I have it on good authority at least one spicebush and three swallowtails have promised to arrive a few weeks earlier from their Southern holiday. Those who overwintered have returned. Those who fell asleep are awake. I myself risk it all: I climb to the top of a blade of grass the aperture of my wingshell opens and closes and opens again.

FANNY HOWE Imagine All the People 5 day Imagine being unable to imagine another side. What would you be? A hill so steep you'd throw your thoughts against it? Segregated schools? A decider who never had to fight? Without advance imagination the people perish. Would you be a grandmother who keeps hands warm no matter where they're from? Or would you be a moth-like hat on the head of a singer lifting her higher and higher? Would you be a newspaper soldier, easy to burn? Would you choose to be something you can never change? Or would you hold up your arms during the metamorphosis?

YVETTE THOMAS Missing Metaphor for time 6 day Our last winter was furious. In the gray and yellow dawns we cowered we covered our heads. World buckled at the margins redrawn and drawn close we shook. No fruit fell. Hope is wind chimes and wind. Change is

PATRICIA SMITH Man, roll the Window down! 7 day On a slushed side street in the Bronx, a determined hustler attacks your smudged windshield with enterprise, sloshes the pane with old water and rocks a feverish squeegee before you can mouth the word no. Stunned at a sluggish stoplight, you have no choice but to force a smile, nod idly while he stretches the busy machine of his body across your hood and whips the gritty wet round and around. It's a second before you notice that his mouth is moving, that although he leapt to his task without warning, he is now attempting to converse as men do, to pass the time, to shoot the shit. You avoid the mouth, choosing instead to scan the dank street for anything. There is lots to see- stands tiled with cheap neon skullcaps, shuttered houses of praise, the fragrant entrance to Chicken, Ribs & Such, a city-assed woman drilling her stilettos into concrete, the butcher shop with price tags pinned to sick meat. In other words, there is nothing to see. He's still draped across your Corolla, wiping, squeaking dry and mouthing. Damned insistent now, he thumps on your windshield and the light has changed now and behind you drivers toot elegant fuck yous. You scramble for your wallet because damn it, that's right, hell, you gotta pay the guy for the gray crisscross swiping that dims the chaos just enough. But what's the message of that mouth, he needs you to know something, inside the huge O of his wild miming there's a collision of collapsed teeth and you slide your window down to a symphony of horn and mad street spittle, and your hustler's message, what he had to get across before he let you pull away from that street light, Obama! Obama! Obama! Obama! he spurt screeches, his eyes fevered with whiskey and damn-it-all, no verbs or adornment, just Obama! as if his wiping little life is stuck on triumph, as if that's all anybody needs to know this day and as he leans in to roar his one-word stanza, damn the money, you see that every single one of those teeth, tilted and pushing for real estate in his mouth, every single one of them is a gold like you've never seen before.

LYN LIFSHIN Michelle's Citrine dress 8 days color of where something growing starts. Spring. Clean and new. The place where a stem jolts up from what nourished and fed it. I think of tulips when I think of that dress, what's alive and sunny, sparkling and nothing like the yellow tulips I sent for what I knew could be a dying friend's dying day

SASHA STEENSEN Wintry Weather and Job Slaughter 9 days All our tales are tall: one week after the inauguration, the lost n in auger bores its hole in the frozen ground. Daily life is holy bedeviling. Who but a witness tree knew the axe is an American native? First thing today, I had my blood drawn. In the distant waiting room, we have to start by listening, the president says. To what? To what's been lost. Octuplets born today- that many more platelets to count, that many more ears to open, mouths to shut, jobs to lose, snows to shovel. All emotion that matters securely hidden buried in a bed of heartsease, fog and grown-over ferns the terrific green, still frozen, still freezing which doesn't mean hope isn't eight times hotter this time of year just eight times over and melting what? fear?

My young saplings and their hatchlings.

JOHN PAUL O'CONNOR new time old time 10 days The unchosen have always been the starbeams for the poor, the tortured and beaten, the homeless, the suffocated. They have been the wind that bursts open poppies in an endless field, just as this morning the January wind blew the seeds of this poem jotted down with coffee 3 days before my daughter's 39th birthday. She is, at this moment, in a classroom downtown studying nursing, while her daughter, my little Izzie, sits at Wanda's Daycare spilling blocks onto the carpet with no awareness of the children's blood spilling in Congo while fathers' heads are crushed like brittle stone and mothers' bodies are torn open by monstrous attackers, children they, all written off as lost Africa, which will remain lost for the next 100 days as it has for the past 300 years. It's a tell of people my age when you hear us say, I've seen this before, Camelot and the revolution just around the corner. Today my around the corner is the Fine Fare, where I pick up milk, orange juice, and peanut butter for my girls before getting back to work. I'm lucky to have work, I've heard a dozen people tell me in the past week. The Dominican check-out girls have no union, though surely they thirst for something greater. I can't know. I don't speak their language. I am one of those who has sat at the bar with his whiskey, whispering to himself on an unchosen night, I was born too late, thinking I might have liked to have lived through the Depression and now it looks as if I will get my wish. But will I get my FDR? No I will get my Obama, the first president to have a name that begins with O. O, Obama, be not the chosen, but the unchosen of the unchosen revolution, not around the corner but here on St. Nicholas Avenue where the swollen tribes of unchosen are chanting, Africa come home, and raising their sunbroad arms to demand you be what they believe you are.

LESLÉA NEWMAN Prayer for a President 11 day At the first ball on the first night the first black president and the first lady danced the first dance while Beyoncé sang "At Last." At last this day had come At last this day had ended At last he held her in his arms and they were spinning around the dance floor elegant as the earth spinning around the sun And just for a moment she was just a woman in a fancy white dress dancing with her husband and just for a moment he was just a man in a crisp black tuxedo dancing with his wife and I was just one more American sitting in front of my TV wishing this first day and night could last forever as I danced myself up to bed, the prayer I'd been murmuring since morning spinning around my head: keep them safe keep them safe keep them safe

REBECCA WOLFF The Most Famous Man in the World 12 days Are you like me jug ears of purpose defined positively by your positive action and the clear vision toward a common sense? It's just common sense. I feel you. You feel me. At least one other in this whole world famous to make ready in the event.


Sad news 13 days We have some sad news this morning from Mars. But I'm thinking about lions. Someone said something salient and my head became a light bulb full of power exactly the shape of my head. Sinister thoughts at the Xerox machine. A chat with a retired torturer. Now the sharp blade. Apparently some solar wind pushed a few specklets of actually not red but gray Mars dust through the seal into the vacuum where the very tiny oiled hydraulics of the light from the distant future collector seized. What was it my brother said to me once? Like a vampire bat on a unicorn Change rides every moment. Houston is full of dead elephants and empty labs experimenting on silence, open any mouth and out blows some hope in a binary data stream.

CORNELIUS EADY Praise for the Inaugural Poet, January, 2009 14 day Perhaps it's an impossible task On an impossible day. A young poet Fixes her gaze along the plaza, Looks this latest version of America in the eyes, Looks in the camera at all the places we've touched Or torched. Sees who's come to this roll call: The out of the woodworks, the I never even dreamts, The I never thought I'd live this longs. Stands in the sharp report of weak January sun. The poet probably knows This family is hers. The poet probably knows Before she cuts history to forty-three lines, Before the capitol has more proof Of what bullets and ropes couldn't stop, She has to straighten her back. She needs to take A deep breath. A black woman is here. All the black women in her are here to sing.


Excerpted from STARTING TODAY 100 POEMS FOR OBAMA'S FIRST 100 DAYS Copyright © 2010 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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