Recently, I traveled by train across the US in a swaying, creeping journey of that took me through the backyards and forgotten corners of our country. Here, you see the America that doesn’t make it into the slogans of presidential campaigns. These back alleys are not evoked by the statistics and demographical jargon politicians use to describe this country.
When the presidential candidates refer to “Americans” – a nation of 320 million souls – we are left flailing in a void of description. Corporate logos come to mind faster than the faces of our fellow citizens. There is no “average” American in a nation as diverse as ours. The politicians travel in private jets and stomp on campaign trails as celebrity figures; they do not slip through the private sorrows and hidden miseries of this country, anonymously and silently bearing witness to the suffering, dreams, hopes, and fears of the populace.
As I ride the train, I watch my nation pass, poignant and poetic. In the side yard of a desert town, a man and his son – descendants of Spanish colonists – fix the electric fence of a cattle pen. In the mountains, a sunburned Boy Scout troop clambers down off the trail of a summer backpacking expedition. On the rattling train, Amish families ride between communities, wearing starched hats and white sneakers, carrying unique dialects and quiet babies. In Colorado, an African-American trucker climbs aboard huffing thank the lord as if only by grace did he make it through this day. These are the faces of my fellow Americans, each unique, each beautiful, each a repository of suffering and grace. I pass a lonely, battered sailboat tilting to the side in a working class backyard; spare time and waterways both lie dried-up, cracked with drought.
Whole lives fall into the cracks of politicians’ ambiguous generalizations. The homeless are swept out of the national conversation as callously as the police who scatter homeless encampments from the cities. Betrayed by political elites who bailed out banks instead of homeowners, broken dreams are flung away like the old mattresses that litter the flashflood-muddied creek beds. Desolate closed-down main streets stretch across the Midwest while corporate box stores blaze florescent at the far ends of town. Small business owners and the middle class can be added to the endangered species list along with the bison, cougar, and grey wolf.
Meanwhile, under bright lights on sanitized, heavily guarded platforms, candidates lift their hands in victory gestures and squawk platitudes to bolster the flagging confidence of a disenchanted American public.
Forgive me, but it is difficult to place my trust in candidates who cannot recall the faces that I see: the toothless, weeping lines of poverty; the screaming children; the weary parents. The slumped figures in beat-up cars rattling to a stop at crossroads in a cloud of their own exhaust. The wail of pain that is a prison – concertina wire and sharp lights, slits of windows too small for a hand to squeeze through, rifles glinting out of guard towers, our humanity locked inside. I cannot have confidence in a candidate for president who cannot invoke the brokenness of our souls.
For there is deep sorrow raining across America. There is despair like a storm cloud hanging black over the plains. Hopelessness parches the hearts of our people. Fear stalks the concrete jungles. Gritted-teeth anxiety shudders in the chests of our debt-shackled youth. Traveling this country, listening, watching, my heart cries out for the impossible: I do not want untrustworthy rhetoric and campaign promises from rich people. I want a poet to articulate the painful truths raging in us all.
I want a modern-day Walt Whitman to sing our body politic electric. I want a glorious six-foot Maya Angelou to awaken the mourning and yearning hiding in our souls. I want a Gary Snyder to hum an irreverent hymn of the broken American heart. I want to hear from the poets, the ones who will speak our names, those who will cry over the lives shot dead in our streets. I want a poet to remember whom we are, to recall the painful past, to struggle through the present, to hold out the beacon toward our future. I want a poet to speak across our airwaves, a human shattered by compassion, committed to our fractured nation. I want a poet to believe in us again, so that we may climb out of the pit of our self-hatred, so that we might find our way to love.
I want our nation to listen to a poet who dares to unchoke love from bellowing patriotism. One who will resuscitate the word with the sharp rib-cracking pressure of truth, so that the gasp of the future may rush into our lungs, that we might breathe together and survive our broken hearts.
And perhaps, even more, I want a public of poets. For decades, we – left and right – have projected our screaming need for change onto candidates attempting to use presidents and political figures as a proxy for our inability to face the hidden misery and beauty of the people that we are. We follow our candidates around on screens, and forget to bear witness to one another. We slap each other in our sorrow; we attack each other’s bleeding souls. I want us to turn our eyes to one another, so that we may see the poetry of our aching existences. So that we might voice our hidden yearnings, so that we might lament our losses, so that we may be truthful, messy, and sincere; so that we might sing our body, electric, our populace, our fractured people. We are a nation of resounding difference, diverse, incredible, and waiting to be sung whole.
Author/Activist Rivera Sun, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection and other books, and the Programs Coordinator for Campaign Nonviolence.