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Poem for Inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Mystic Chords of Memory

big flag

O, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On Saturday, sitting at a long traffic light, I patiently watched this immense flag wave against a clear blue winter sky, photographed it through my windshield over a dozen times trying to capture the perfect moment of grace and meaning. There is no perfect moment, not for the gently waving flag, nor for we the people: all moments, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, come together to create a course of history.

The more I’ve learned of history and see the violent transfer of power in some other countries even today, the more fascinated I am with our peaceful transfer of power—especially after all the divisiveness and general bad attitude that surrounds every election.

Upon watching the events of Election Day in 2008 when this nation moved a black family into the White House, I, along with many others, truly thought it would never happen. And yet it did, peacefully, even joyfully as people who had never voted stood in line all day to cast their ballot for both sides of the ticket. Participation in this process is our right and responsibility, and we the people need to remember that.

We have always had strife and disagreement in this country as we’ve moved to recognize everyone who lives here as an equal voice in our national conversation, and that we can resolve this peacefully is our greatest strength as we showed the world it could be done by the will of the governed. Yet it was also one civil war and the violent deaths of two leaders that moved us forward to the moment of inaugurating this president, and the words of these two leaders echoed all through the presidential campaign in 2008. As I watched Election Day 2008 unfold I remembered the words of those two leaders and wrote this poem.

The Mystic Chords of Memory

I begin with an epigraph, the closing paragraph of Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stre[t]ching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

And so do we remember, in this time of change,
Another time of strife and uncertainty
When our nation would be pulled apart
Not by something so esoteric as a failing economy
But by the real threat of war, among ourselves, on our own soil;
Not a metaphorical war, not of words and ideas,
But of guns and blood,
And brothers and fathers and mothers and sisters,
Neighbors and friends, everyone, no one would escape its reach.
And so we fought that war, and though severely wounded, we survived.

Yet a century later we were still fighting this battle in our streets.
We forgot those who had already given the last full measure of devotion(1) for this cause.
We were reminded that we must live together as brothers or perish together as fools(2),
And that the fierce urgency of Now(3) demanded that we make real the promises of democracy(4),
Echoing the words of a century before, and even a century before that.
But we took away his dream, too,
And the dreams of others
Until the bloodshed frightened us,
Reminded that a balance cannot exist without compromise,
And an uncompromising nature destroys everything in its path, including itself.

I remember those days of my childhood,
Of the fledgling hope that we could simply live together in understanding,
But I watched people tuck away their hatred to keep for another day
And it only grew distorted,
And a half century later, we still fought the battle in our hearts.
But to my great surprise and joy,
I watched a nation of people,
Touched by the better angels of their nature(5),
March to the promised land(6),
Happily wait all day, finally cast their vote
For change, for hope, and for love of this great experiment in liberty and freedom,
Ready to begin again the work of remaking America(7).

1Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”, dedication of the battlefield at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863.
2Martin Luther King, Jr., quote.
3Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream”, speech given at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., August 28, 1963.
4Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream”, speech given at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., August 28, 1963.
5Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address”, given in Washington, D.C., March 4, 1861.
6Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land”, speech given in Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968.
7Barack Obama, “Inaugural Address”, given in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2009.

“The Mystic Chords of Memory” © 2009 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Read more poetry here on Today or visit my poetry page to see more about my poetry and other writing, and to purchase Paths I Have Walked.

poetry book

Paths I Have Walked, collected poems.

I’m proud to offer a folio of my poetry

Paths I Have Walked: the poetry and art of Bernadette E. Kazmarski


People who attended one or more of my poetry readings encouraged me to publish some of my poetry in a book from the beginning.

Once I completed my 2010 poetry reading, my fourth featuring the final piece of artwork in the “Art of the Watershed” series, I decided it was time to publish something and it should be those four poetry readings.

Poetry books are not best-sellers; it’s difficult to convince a publisher to risk effort on a beginning poet, and while self-publishing is the best option it’s not inexpensive and once you’ve got the book, someone’s got to market it. Plus, I’m a graphic designer and I designed books for years, and I want things my way.

All of this is a recipe for a little bit of trouble, but I decided the book was well worth the effort so I designed the book myself and had a set printed—no ISBN or anything formal, but it’s a start! I’m really excited to offer it.

Books are 4.25″ x 11″, 40 pages of information and poetry, with glossy covers featuring “Dusk in the Woods” and little thumbnails of all four pieces in “Art of the Watershed”.

$8.00 each plus $2.50 shipping (they are oversized for mailing first class).

You can order one on my poetry page, or in my Marketplace.

About the books and the poetry readings

My biggest inspiration for poetry, prose and artwork is the world right around me, and I enjoy the opportunity to share it from the perspective of one who walks and hikes and bikes and carries a camera, art materials and journal everywhere—even around the house—so the inspirations are fresh.

In December, 2006, two of my poems were chosen to be published on a section of the Prairie Home Companion website entitled “Stories From Home/First Person” for submissions of writing about the place we feel most familiar. I’m a long-time listener to PHC and reader of Garrison Keillor’s books as well as a daily listener to The Writer’s Almanac featuring news about writers and writing and of interest to writers as well as a poem, all compiled and read by Keillor himself. I was astonished to find my poems were among the first chosen from apparently thousands, and so happy to be able to share them with a potential audience of so many similarly inclined writers and readers.

My poetry readings and art exhibits were the vision of Maggie Forbes, executive director of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, after learning of my publishing of those two
poems. I owe her many thanks for encouraging me to present this combination of my visual and literary art, a first for me. I love that building, every inch of it, and the opportunity to bring people in to visit is an honor.


One response

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