To recite at the inauguration of a U.S. president is to occupy what must be the biggest poetry platform on earth. When Amanda Gorman took the stage on Jan. 20, there was a collective swiveling of heads: Who’s that? The inaugural poet was 22 years old and recited a work of about 700 words. The register of the poem was optimism, the language was direct and the imagery simple: light, dawn, shade, sea. The poem’s prescription to “let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left” plowed deliberately into cliché, but Gorman stuck the landing — partly because of the context and mostly because of her delivery. It was exactly the right text for the occasion.
That poem, “The Hill We Climb,” drew on Gorman’s strengths: the rhythm of her syllables, the vigor of her performance, and her gift for concealing razor blades in lines of pillowy hope. Take the following stanza:
We, the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl,
Descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,
Can dream of becoming president,
Only to find herself reciting for one.
The blade, if you overlooked it, is “Only to find herself reciting for one,” which can be read in at least two ways. Maybe it’s a plain acknowledgment of Gorman’s triumph; she was one of just six poets to read at an American inauguration, and by far the youngest. Maybe it’s a tart observation about performing a service (an honorable and prestigious service, but a service) for a politician with a troubled record on, among other things, race — something that Gorman, who is keenly interested in American history, would not have missed. That “only” is either an expression of wonderment or, read in the sense of “merely,” a skeptically raised eyebrow. Nested inside the line’s ambiguity is yet another one, embedded within the phrase “to find herself.” To find oneself is an act of self-invention; to find oneself doing something suggests the passive and aimless opposite of self-invention.
All of which is to say: If Gorman’s performance was widely perceived as existing in one mode — an exuberant call to action and, per the assignment, a meditation on unity — its effect on the page is more subtle, and strewn throughout with subversive detonations. “The Hill We Climb” is the final poem in “Call Us What We Carry,” a sprawling collection with references ranging from “Ghostbusters” to Shakespeare to Carly Simon to Plato and influences that include Anne Carson, Lucille Clifton, Abraham Lincoln and Homer.