Kim Stafford’s “Dear America”

Kim Stafford, son of the late American poet William Stafford, published this striking protest poem at the end of 2016 during troubled political times in America. Like many poems and speeches of protest, it takes advantage of a number of poetic and rhythmic devices to deliver a powerful response to those men and women who are quickly reshaping this country, for better or worse. Like many poets of witness, Stafford, too, finds a voice that pivots firmly in space, as he seeks to find solid footing in the new spinning and unstable world around us, as if we were all caught in the midst of an earthquake without fully realizing it.

If you were a century, I would be one breath,
striving to speak my honest syllable…

In addition to being a poet and teacher, Kim Stafford is a published and award-winning essayist, editor, and musician. He founded and directs the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Like his father, his poetry and writings deal largely with nature, place, preservation, and the West.

Dear America

If you were a tree, I would be a bud,
clenching a feral secret.
If you were a river, I would be a raindrop
sipped into your sweep.
If you were a mountain, I would be a pebble,
a fulcrum, your pivot.
If you were a water cannon, I would be
ice on a braid of gray.
If you were tear gas, I would weep for you.
If you were a wall, I would be a dreamer
yearning to breathe free.
If you were an oil well, I would be a cup of water.
If you were a power grid, I would be sunlight
on a child’s hand.
If you were a century, I would be one breath,
striving to speak my honest syllable.
If you were an empire, I would be the remote village
keeping to the old ways.
If you were a grandmother, I would be the child
who brings you tea.
If you were a billionaire, I would be a simple gift.
If you were a legend, I would be the minor character
the hero sees standing by the road in witness.
If you were a patriotic song, I would be the late verse
remembered only by the elders, hummed at evening.
If you were a prison guard, I would be Mandela’s
slow step, setting the pace in spite of chains.
If you were a long migration, I would be a seed
to sustain two wings.
If you were the great change, I would be one
of the myriad beginnings.
If you were a sorrow, I would be a glimmer.
If you were in recovery, I would leave food on your step.
If you were a grand parade, I would be one
of the unseen singers.
If you were a war, I would bring food to the widows.
If you were a tyranny, I would vote for kindness.
If you were the arc of history, I would bend
my life toward justice.
If you were a declaration of independence,
I would pledge allegiance to interdependence.
If you pursued happiness for a few, I would ask about the many.
If you were a tower, I would be a pilgrim’s tent.
If you were a bold proclamation, I would be a whispered testament.
If you were a phone, I would be a voice to make it matter.
If you were the greed of one generation, I would be the need
of the seventh generation.
If you were the way it was, I would be the way it could be.
If you were a disaster, we could count our blessings.
And if you thought you were my enemy, I would ask
about your children.

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