Amanda Gorman and The Hill We Climb

Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman at the presidential inauguration rites (Screengrab from BBC News)

Joseph “Joe” Biden, the 46th President of the United States, is left now to care for an America that is in desperate need of a triple bypass. Former chief executive Donald Trump had done much to make their nightmares come true, ergo the surgery.

This is easier said than done. The siege at the Capitol was nothing but a symptom of a deeper, more infectious malady: an America divided at the heart of its strength. And this, to the not-so-casual observer, means its claim to the name “united,” for which it has gone through great lengths to achieve.

Thank God, Americans did, with no less democracy’s scalpel of choice: democratic elections. To many, Biden and Kamala Harris winning the polls proved beyond a doubt that the system works.

In a world lurching toward authoritarian leaderships, seeing democracy give the tyrant the boot is a genuinely phenomenal experience.

Winning the day after four years of what can only be called as “insistent, maddening, claustrophobic pounding in the skull that comes from trying to breathe in a very small room with all the windows shut” — as American author James Baldwin once wrote of Harlem — is no mean feat.

Covid-19 has cost the U.S. close to half a million American lives, to say nothing of the trail of inhumanity left by Trump’s infantilism.

America’s choice of Biden and Harris builds a case in favor of a fight that was, for all intents and purposes, destined to win. All because history tells us that tyrants are the most tragic and luckless of all losers.

Over and above the political underpinnings one can gleam from the inaugural, one stands out as amazingly American: the participation of the world of arts in the investiture of democratic leadership.

One standout performance came from a 22-year-old young woman, America’s youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman. As soon as her poem, The Hill We Climb, hit social media, the poem went viral.

While this resident from Los Angeles was no Maya Angelou, who stood as Bill Clinton’s inaugural poet in 1993, Gorman exuded not only the confidence of a seasoned bard — one defined by poet Percy Shelley as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” — but with courage the likes of which forced some poets to shriek with what seems like envy.

*With good reason. Shortly after the inauguration, Gorman landed on Amazon’s bestseller list.

Browsing my Facebook feed that day, I noticed how a good many poets brushed off Gorman’s poem as “not poetry” but “prose” stitched to sound like one.

I shun the thought of going so far as to judge its form without so much as grasping the substance. Surely there was more to the inaugural verses than Shakespeare’s sonnets or Ezra Pound’s Cantos can offer at a time when rebuilding a country split at the core must take precedence.

From where I sat watching the event unfold on-screen, I noticed an undeniable rhythm rising during the reading of the poem. The musicality did much to draw me to its message, if not the immediate question why presidential inaugurations in our own country rarely bring in poets to usher in the new guards.

If we give it a closer reading, Gorman knew the sociopolitical substructures rusting at their nuts and bolts:

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace / And the norms and notions / of what just is / Isn’t always just-ice

Whether its poetry or prose makes no difference here because the revelation stuns the senses: that the silence looming over these united states is no different from the hush of a predator ready to pounce on its prey; that, alas, the smothering being felt all around is far from the mothering arms of justice.

But one thing is certain: / If we merge mercy with might, / and might with right, / then love becomes our legacy / and change our children’s birthright / So let us leave behind a country / better than the one we were left with…

To witness one’s own nation embattled from within, tempted sorely by myths of racist grandeur and delusions of empire, must’ve been painful to watch for this young poet. So much so that reforms, as the children’s birthright, seem well-nigh impossible to achieve without them being ripped from the life they once knew.

But for what it’s worth in gaining new ground and shaping a future generation with change as its inheritance, to leave behind what was is a welcome concession worth its weight in a future free from previous threats.

The people of the colonies once set sail for a chance at discovery. They might need to engage in such an expedition again, this time inwardly, as conquerors of a self largely ensnared by fantasies of white superiority than a universal preference for humanity.

This Gorman expounds all so clearly:

We are striving to forge a union with purpose / To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man / And so we lift our gazes not to what / stands between us / but what stands before us / We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, / we must first put our differences aside

A future where differences involving skin color, religious beliefs, interests, financial moorings, political loyalties, to say nothing of dreams huge and small, intertwine, the chances of forging this future could take more years than most Americans are willing to bargain for.

It is, however, not impossible. This is where power ought to be invested in. Envisioning a future through the prism of diversity has always been the core competence of every working democracy.

In principle, it is achievable; immediate reality, though, is quite another story. The hill Americans will have to climb after the siege at the Capitol easily transform into mountains and highlands steep in untold dangers, with crags and cliffs to overcome.

Freedom — if what Americans mean by it is synonymous with human dignity — requires no less.

The spats about whether The Hill We Climb is a poem or not pale desperately when set cheek by jowl to the more pressing inquiry of the verse: where democracy may well be headed. What future are Americans expecting? Is democracy cursed within the oubliette of a cycle where, every so often, when they’re not looking, tyrants and idiots rise to power?

Are democratic elections, touted as the powerhouse principle on which democratic nations either stand or fall, afflicted with such weakness in the superstructure that it is virtually impossible to fix?

Tough questions necessarily beg for tough answers. Certain, however, is the fact that if people take their freedoms nonchalantly, worse bitterly, then expect tyrants and idiots to use this to their advantage.

Amanda Gorman wrote and delivered a poem in the U.S. presidential inauguration rites. More than any attempt of the poet to woo attention to its form, Gorman’s message was nevertheless timely and mature.

The United States will have to set sail inwardly starting today with Biden at the captain’s wheel. This effort at national introspection, if done with necessary grit, would’ve taught not only Americans, but all democracies around the globe, including our own, on how to deal with all who’d wish to crush it.

The United States is only possible through a united effort. That goes for all of us non-Americans who struggle to be free.

Joel Pablo Salud is the author of several books of fiction and political nonfiction. He is a columnist for LiCASNews Philippines.