The American Political Sestina
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Author: Alexandra Umlas
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The American Political Sestina         

By 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.

Alexandra Umlas is a Humanities teacher and author of the full-length poetry collection At the Table of the Unknown (Moon Tide Press).

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