Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman

“Since the world is round,

There is no way to walk away

From each other, for even then

We are coming back together.

Some distances, if allowed to grow,

Are merely the greatest proximities.”

– Amanda Gorman, “Call Us What We Carry”: poems

Review:

Call Us What We Carry first recalls the imagery of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Before reading this anthology, I highly recommend reading at least a synopsis of the classic work of literature. Know that if you aren’t at least familiar with the opening lines of the story and it’s brief Spark Notes summary, a good deal of the meaning in these poems will be lost to you.

I bought this book fully expecting to fall in love with it. Sadly though, at first, I was underwhelmed by these poems. The use of the “&” symbol instead of the word “and” distracted me and removed me from the flow of the words on the page. Call me a purist, but I generally do not like abbreviations or symbols where words will suffice, especially when the words are so short. My brain has to switch from decoding words in their entirety to decoding a non-phonetic symbol and then back again. It impedes me, and I do not feel like this was the purpose behind the stylistic choice. I understand that this is probably much less of a problem for readers of Gorman’s generation. Those who are still students may not see this as an issue at all.

So, I had resigned myself to this and to occasionally turning the book around as a poem appeared in the shape of descending stairs or even of a whale. It felt quaint, like elementary school, until “CORDAGE, or ATONEMENT” on page 53. Here I realized the link between the title of the book, the fish shaped poems, the water metaphors, and Melville’s Moby Dick. Transpose the setting, isolation, devastation, and theme of that work onto our human experience with the isolation and devastation of Covid-19, and suddenly Gorman’s work becomes much more profound. It was at this point that I closed the book and opened it back up again at the first page to read again with greater understanding.

And I was blown away.

Gorman skillfully weaves the narrative of our pandemic experiences in with the history of World War I and also of racial segregation and white supremacy. The motif of breath carries throughout the work, as does the concept of identity and name. Gorman reminded me at once of both the horrors that ran alongside our pandemic year (climate disasters, violence against black lives, the loss of loved ones and the illusion of peace) and the hope that also ran within that year. I’ve recently began consuming art and stories written during our pandemic (which of course is ongoing): The Anthropocene Reviewed, Bo Burnham’s “Inside”, and now this book. It has been more healing that hideous, more gracious than grisly.

I especially loved Gorman’s comparison to the last couple of years of our lived experience to the monomyth: the one story that seems to be repeated in all our stories. The story is not over, of course. Vaccines may have arrived, and democracy may have prevailed over the January 6th insurgency, but the threats of both Covid-19 and fascism are both alive and well. What will we learn through this time? Who will we become?

Can a privileged white woman even rate a black woman’s poetry, her inner world and experiences? I don’t think so. But I can at least highly recommend Call Us What We Carry to all.

“Words, too, are a type of combat, for we always become what we refuse to say.”

– Amanda Gorman, “Call Us What We Carry”: poems

Pros:

  • sectioned to make this an easy read, but also to slow the reader down and make them chew on what they’re reading
  • formatting changes to keep writing fresh, and changes are always integral to the meaning of the poem
  • a calling to account that is also hopeful and inspiring

Cons:

  • symbols and texting language for style that some may find distracting, at least at first

Rating:

  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

“We do not hope for no reason.

Hope is the reason for itself.”

– Amanda Gorman, “Call Us What We Carry”: poems

Recommended For:

  • those wishing and looking to learn from and heal from their pandemic experiences
  • those wishing to have a greater understanding of how the pandemic, political violence, and white supremacy are woven together
  • those wanting literature that will challenge them both intellectually and intrinsically.

Books to Read if You Loved Call Us What We Carry:

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • What parallels do you see between the “Spanish” Influenza and our own Covid-19 experiences? Did we learn from history or did it repeat itself? Can both be true at the same time?
  • What do we carry as the legacy of our nation? Does it weigh us down or build us to be better?
  • Is poetry more for the poet or the audience?

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