Poem commemorates inauguration

A poem by USC poet-in-residence Kwame Dawes commemorates Barack Obama's inauguration. The eight-part poem, titled “New Day,” soars from Africa to Chicago to South Carolina, tipping its hat along the way to Dizzy Gillespie and Abraham Lincoln.

New Day

By Kwame Dawes

1. Obama, January 1st, 2009

Already the halo of grey covers his close-cropped head.

Before, we could see the pale glow of his skull, the way

he kept it close, now the grey - he spends little time in bed,

mostly he places things in boxes or color coded trays,

and calculates the price of expectation - the things promised

all eyes now on him: the winning politician’s burden.

On the day he makes his speech he will miss

the barber shop, the quick smoke in the alley, the poem

found in the remainder box, a chance to just shoot

some hoops, and those empty moments to remember

that green rice paddy where he used to sprint, a barefoot

screaming boy, all legs, going home to the pure

truth of an ordinary life, that simple place where, fatherless,

he found comfort in the wisdom of old broken soldiers.

2. How Legends Begin

This is how legends begin - the knife slitting the throat

of a hen, the blood, the callous pragmatism of eating

livestock grown for months, the myth of a father, a boat

ride into the jungle, a tongue curling then flinging

back a language alien as his skin; the rituals

of finding the middle ground, navigating a mother’s

mistakes, a father’s silence, a world’s trivial

divisions, the meaning of color and nation-negotiator

of calm, a boy tutored in the art of profitable charm;

this is how legends begin and we will tell this, too,

to the children lined up with flags despite the storms

gathering, children who will believe in the hope of blue

skies stretched out behind the mountain of clouds;

and he will make language to soothe the teeming crowds.

3. Waking Up American, November 5, 2008

She says she never saw him as black, unlike his mother

who said she did. She says she saw him as colorless,

just a man, unlike his white mother who touched his father’s

face, the deep brown earth, the glow. She says it's best

to see him as simply a human in this country that shed

long ago the pernicious sting of race, she says, and I

call her a tenderhearted dreamer, a sweet liar, I say,

a white-lie teller who would rather tell this bland lie

before admitting that walking down King Street

the morning after the votes were counted, she was

scared, but proud, so giddy with the wild beat

of her heart, knowing that her country paused

for an instant and did something grand, made a black

man president, such a miracle, such beautiful magic.

4. Punch-line

I have asked this of them year after year, a punch-line

waiting to happen with clockwork consistency -

raise your hand if you can remember a time

you believed that even you could take the presidency;

yes, you, blacks, poor, women, Latinos - was it when

you were four, five, six? And the believers all

would raise their hands. So the second question:

how many now think you have the wherewithal

to be the chief today - and up go four hands:

a dreamer, a liar, a clown, a madman. What went wrong?

How did you all mess up? Well, it's messed up now, it’s gone

now that a black man has done it! Cancel class, time to hang

a poor joke; can’t complain about oppression no more;

we’ve got to recalibrate who is the man now, that’s for sure.

5. Palmetto

Of course, my home has kept its promise to itself;

the one that made Eartha Kitt, Chubby Checker, Althea Gibson,

James Brown all pack their bags, clean out their shelves,

never to look back, not once. They found their homeless songs,

like people who have forgotten where their navel-strings

were buried. We kept the promise that made those who stayed, learn

to fight with the genius of silence, the subterfuge of rings

of secret flames held close to the heart, kindling the slow burn

of resistance. But good news: despite the final state count,

we know that the upheaval of all things still brought grace

here where pine trees bleed and palmettos suck up the brunt

of blows, and so we can now hum the quiet solace

of victory with a surreptitious shuffle, a quick, quick-step

for you, Smoking Joe, Dizzy, James, and Jesse, slide, slide, now step.

6. Confession

Here is my confession, then, the one I keep inside me -

while the crowds gather in Washington, I will admit this:

it is enough that it happened, more than enough that we see

him standing there shattering all our good excuses: no, not bliss,

not some balm over the wounds that still hurt, but it is enough

to say that we saw it happen, the thing we thought wouldn’t,

and we did it even if we did not want to do it. And that is tough,

yes, but it is good and grand and beautiful and new. And,

more, it is enough, no matter what comes next, that a man

who knows the blues, knows the stop-time of be-bop,

who’s asked from inside out the meaning of blood and skin,

is, let’s just say it, standing there, yes, standing at the top

of the world - it is enough for tomorrow; and yes he is tough

and yes he is smart, but mostly it is sweet and more than enough.

7. On Having a Cool President

He will not be the buffoon and clown; he’s too cool for that.

His cool is the art of ease, the way we drain out tension;

the way we make hard seem easy, seem like it ought.

Cool is not seeing the burn in the fluid grace of execution.

Cool is knowing how to lean back and let it come,

but always ready for it to come. He will be no minstrel show

fool, but a man who shows, in the midst of chaos, unruffled calm.

Like, what-does-he-know-that-we-don’t-know?

Like, I-can-be-brighter-than-you-and-still-be-down, cool.

Like some presidential cool; a cool that maybe hasn’t been seen

in the White House before. You see, he is a nobody’s fool,

kind of cool, the one that makes a gangsta lean look so clean,

kind of cool. That’s what we have now, and to be honest,

you can call this cool what you want, me, I call it blessed.

8. Lincoln, January 1st,1863

I think now of that other Illinois man, pacing the creaking boards

of the musty mansion, cradling a nation’s future in his head,

the concussion of guns continuing, the bloody hordes

of rebels like ghouls in his dreams; he, too, avoids the bed;

tomorrow the hundred days will be over, a million

souls will be free, a million pieces of property pilfered

from citizens, a million laborers worth their weight in bullion

promised a new day across the border, a million scared

owners, a million calamities, all with the flow of ink

from his pen. This is the path of the pragmatist who would

be savior, the genius act of simple war, the act to sink

an enemy, and yet hallelujahs will break out like loud

ululations of freedom. Uneasy lies the head, he knows -

this is how our leaders are born, how we find our heroes.


Kwame Dawes explains how he wrote New Day