Elude – Behind the Scenes

Here is what I wrote on this annotation page while this poem was awaiting publication:

Often I post annotations and “behind the scenes” information about these pieces even while they await publication.

However, Elude is different. The unique character of the poem makes giving a “behind the scenes” look impossible without referencing the published poem. I can’t wait to share it with you.

elude obscured

Elude mid-draft , well underway, and obscured (I can’t wait for you to see it!)

What was unique about this piece? It was composed of a series of snippets of words and phrases from a wide variety of important sources, that I thought gained interesting poignance in their juxtaposition.

Here is the list of sources of the phrases.

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So about the poem, “Elude.”

The title of the piece summarizes the poem and my feelings: there is an ideal we never seem to achieve (or even agree on, sometimes). Wasson, Hughes, King, Jr., Bates, Lincoln, and Lazarus all made that clear in their source material for this poem. That ideal? It’s mercy. That ideal is liberty and justice for all.

It’s complicated.

Whose land is it?

Native peoples were here before the Europeans arrived, slaves were forced here, immigrants have arrived (including my ancestors) and have been at times welcomed and at times derided or scapegoated, and we all of us live in the aftermath and crucible, sharing (or not) an experience and idea of what America is and means. My own ancestors were on the Mayflower nine generations ago. My own ancestors were also driven out of the United States for their religious beliefs four generations ago (and then later reabsorbed into the country). Thousands of displaced persons now appeal to us as a nation, most of us being the children or grandchildren of immigrants, here at our national doorstep, hoping for mercy and often finding none.

It’s all complicated.

Nations are grand concepts – they are ideas we share. When we as fellow citizens don’t share enough of the idea in common anymore, we don’t live in the same country, despite our geographic proximity. Here are three of the most important ideas about America to me:

  1. Peaceful transfer of power.
    • The party in power has the military and technological might through the instruments of government to stay in power by force. The most important idea(l) of America to me is that when people vote, their will is carried out. If that vote means a transfer of power, that occurs peacefully and in orderly fashion. Anyone acting or implying that anything other than a peaceful transfer could happen is counter to the idea of America to me. Related to this: Anyone deliberately reducing the power of the vote through gerrymandering or other means, or reducing the likelihood of voting, or reducing the number of citizens eligible or empowered to vote is acting in a manner inconsistent with the idea(l) of America to me. I believe that America, as an idea(l), represents the peaceful transfer of power.
  2. Majority rule, minority rights and protections.
    • Democracy should mean that the will of the people (and not of corporations, which I don’t believe have a constitutional right to free speech) is reflected in the operation of government – as Lincoln said: “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Sometimes there may be 95% agreement, sometimes 51% agreement – yet the remaining 5% or 49% deserve to have their basic rights upheld and preserved, even when the law does not reflect their wishes. They deserve the right to speak freely, to seek to pursue other outcomes, to seek to influence future votes and legislation. There are minority rights and protections. Freedom of conscience persists. Freedom of religion persists. Basic freedoms and dignities and value persist. All other rights and powers belong to the people. (And speaking of the Bill of Rights….)
  3. Freedom of speech, assembly, and worship.
    • Some of our artists, poets, ministers, punk rockers, folk singers, authors, activists, striking workers, essayists, religionists, and others have done much to preserve our liberty (and our idea of America) on our own soil in their way, just as have many soldiers and first responders. Yes, we should never forget that we have had countless fellow Americans die preserving us from overt military threats to our freedoms, and we owe them an unpayable debt of gratitude (which I believe we can pay in part by living true to the idea[l] of America). We have also had artists, poets, activists, strikers, essayists, and religionists die or face total loss and imprisonment within our own national borders to preserve our freedoms to speak, assemble, and worship. Freedom of worship is in part retained by worshipping (like my ancestors, expelled from the United States for their faith and worship, unprotected from the might of mob and government despite these ideals). Freedom of speech is in part retained by speaking, even when it is speaking truth to power, or speaking out when speaking is unpopular. Freedom of assembly is preserved by assembling, even when there are dogs or firehoses. It takes each of our individual bravery (and our courtesy and mutual respect) to preserve our freedoms – and the idea(l) or America. Soldiers, artists, first responders, ministers, people acting out of conscience – we owe them our ongoing freedoms.

Despite best intentions among some, poor intentions among some, non intention or care among some, we’re all here together now. And who are we? Some celebrate Columbus Day. Some recognize him as contributing to a genocide. Some celebrate the founding of America. Some see it as overcoming imperialism. Some see it as an imperialist power. Some see it as representing sacrifice and the originator of modern democracy and peoples’ movements. Some see it as the center of growth of international corporations and loss of power of local peoples around the globe. What is it that eludes us yet? I still think it is mercy. In my poem “The Generations of Adam” I talk about this same concept – I think the national emergency is the loss of mercy.

Some of the included poems that serve as snippets to build Elude are traditional paeans to America, Americana, and patriotism (in the traditional, mainstream sense). Some of these are appeals to our better selves, or are laments. The national anthem and the Gettysburg address are represented, as are heartbreaking witnesses. There is a jarring piquancy in the colocation of Langston Hughes and Abraham Lincoln, and Michael Wasson and Francis Scott Key in “Dimly seen under our knees: / the unfinished work America will be.” These remind of this essential point: Bates was praying, not describing the present, when she wrote these lines in “America the Beautiful.” Each of these statements is a prayer for something yearned for that might yet occur:

“God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!”

“God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!”

“May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!”

“God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!”

I don’t know what it is like to be an immigrant – and this is a world with record numbers of displaced persons. I don’t know what it is like to be a racial or ethnic minority – this in a world with persistent institutional and structural racism. I don’t know what it is like to be an indigenous person forcibly removed from homelands. I don’t know what it is like to be oppressed.

In gratitude, I hope I can always bend towards mercy. As a nation of such wealth and power and disproportionate latitude on the world stage, I hope we’ll learn wisdom, care, and bend towards mercy. Always. Always. Always.

So that someday, perhaps what we yearn for, will no longer elude us all.