“The American Political Sestina” by Alexandra Umlas

Alexandra Umlas


… the American political poem is a safe poem.
—from “Political Poetry” by Kwame Dawes

A daughter asks her mother if humanitarian is the
same thing as volunteer. They are an American
family—a wine-salesman, a teacher, far from political.
They eat boxes of cereal, pet their cats. Sometimes a poem
will begin to form in the mother’s head, and life is
slow enough that there is time to write it, safe
from forgetfulness, on the page, which is also safe,
because even when it gets there, it can stay put. The
cat purrs in the corner. Sometimes dinner is
cooking on the stove. The National Public American
radio station is playing news or sometimes a poem
will weave its way onto the station. Sometimes it’s political,
but mostly it’s a poem about nothing political,
about hats, or who wears them, or about other safe
activities, like eating a peach. Or sometimes the poem
is slightly political, but the message is quiet, the
lines full of assonance and other beautiful American
things like sitting in a park one evening because it is
a Tuesday, and you can. Sometimes the poem is
filled with a quote about something, maybe political,
but the author of the poem is an American
and likes to write sestinas, and we know how safe
sestinas are—all those words repeating so that the
message just keeps recycling. The words in the poem
are the, American, political, is, safe, and poem,
because the careful author of the poem is
trying (of course) to write more than just words, the
important stuff evades her, in part because the political
is not the cereal box or the purr of the cat or anything safe,
and she is driving with her daughter on American
roads, and there will always be the problem of American
writers wanting to make a difference with a poem,
and the woman’s daughter is just coming home safe
from school and she asks something—she is
listening to the radio, listening to the news, the political
comes into the car. Why am I the one eating the
snack, safe because of where I was born, (on American
soil) but the girl on the radio is running from bombs? No poem
can explain this. Fair is the opposite of political.

from Poets Respond
October 24, 2023


Alexandra Umlas: “On Monday I took my daughter to get a treat after school. On the way home, we were listening to NPR’s replay of the morning news that described people leaving their homes in Gaza. She asked me how it is possible that she can be eating a snack while a girl in another place is leaving home because of bombing. That night, I read Kwame Dawes’ article, ‘Political Poetry,’ on the Poetry Foundation website. This is the poem that I wrote.” (web)

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