Earlier this year, nearly 100 million people watched American poet Amanda Gorman perform at a ceremony at the very heart of her nation’s identity: the 2021 Super Bowl. Its magnitude made its precedent concert – the reading during the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden – looks like a village festival. Gorman’s Super Bowl poem is, aptly, omitted from Call Us What We Carry, 23-year-old’s first book collection. I wish a few more had been left out as well. At over 200 pages, it’s unusually long for a first album and the quality is very patchy. Publishers dazzled by fame often misplace their scissors just when authors need their help most. Gorman is a captivating performer and a poet full of promise; one day she will write a great book, but for now it is a hill that she has not yet climbed.
There’s a lot of visual variety here – a poem imprinted on an image of a face mask, one in the shape of a Capitol building, one where each stanza is in its own WhatsApp-like message bubble – but a continuity of tone and theme. Half of the poems directly address the events of the past two years, in particular the US coronavirus lockdown, a period when “time has collapsed” [sic].
Throughout, Gorman uses “we” (rather than “I”), so each poem can speak for the poet, the nation, or all of humanity. This one-size-fits-all sounds unconvincing in phrases like “As one, we will overcome both despair and disease. / We stand alongside the heroes of health and all employees.” In this verse, the rhyme seems to control the line too much, as it also is in “The only way to predict correctly / The future is to prepare it / This is to brave it”. Pave the path towards the future, of course, but “paving the way”?
Elsewhere, the comparisons have some weird hiccups:
Our history is not a carved circle,
But a spiral / shaped / revolving shed,
Move in and out To infinity,
Like a lung on the verge of speech.
I spent a good half hour chewing that sneaky lung. But these moments of distinctive weirdness are better than the bland, abstract feeling that can creep under the banner of universal wisdom:
All we have is the time, it’s now.
Time is taking us.
How we are moved says it all
About what we are to each other
& what are we for each other
This last rhetorical device – a compelling rhetorical question, ending with a period (“what X, otherwise Yes. ‘) – is used so often throughout the book that it loses its impact. “Who are we, if not / What do we do with the dark.” “” What are we, if not what we see in another. “Are we not the animals […] Walk in the ark of our lives.