To President Obama on his second inauguration

Brenda Shaughnessy

Brenda Shaughnessy is the author of the poetry collections “Our Andromeda,” “Interior with Sudden Joy” and “Human Dark with Sugar,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

To President Obama on his Second Inauguration

If poetry is truth that makes us more human,
then this poem’s already been written. Voting wrote it,
in booths on ballots. O you are still president
and that is our poetry. The plain truth made beautiful.

You look better than new, and we know better too.
This election wasn’t just you fresh and flush
in dewy new votes like first kisses raining down
your elegant self those hurricane days and worrying nights.

That first debate. Let’s face it, O you scared us
witless.  A couple slips—flat-toned, something off—remind us
you’re just a person, trying, tired, flawed. Let’s be clear.
That night we grew feverish and bright with fear.

Shipwreck?  O I wasn’t even on the boat and this election
nearly killed me.  Just watching felt like drowning.
Some nights Rachel Maddow was my lone flotation device
and even she was deflated.  I felt my life slide down

a sharp terrible world of rumor and fakepaste
and crazycrap and drowned mouth and what could happen
if someone wound up running the country
like a country club. To club us with. A national revival

of the belief that women are mere vessels for children
and for men. Where soldiers can only ever start poor
and end destitute if not dead. Where kids are cherished only
in the womb but loathed in the world.

Where the rich few deny the many poor and the poor
still buy the load. Where the fact and fate of my daughter,
my daughter’s body, everybody’s daughters’ bodies,
become matters of state. 

And O my little boy’s only five years old.  
He needs medicine the way the sky is up. 
He needs the hospital to stay out of the hospital,
the way the sea is both fierce and calm. 

Insurance companies always bet against the sea. 
Thank you for not letting them do that to my family.  
Thank you for knowing that a child’s surgery
shouldn’t bring the family to bankruptcy.

So we might be considered whole—not fragments,
fractions, a slice of number that could be spent,
we believed in you wholly. You always knew
what that meant. You never called us your 53%.

So we might have a song of our own, we voted, we sang.
We sang a song of saying so, singing O.
So we might be heard, we voted. O, out of many, one. 
Out of everyone, you.  You never left us, but welcome back. 

You’ve come so far, and you’ve far to go. You know
the way, O. Lifted up in a diner, adored and exhausted,
traveling in a motorcade, in love, in tears, entrusted, accosted.
Everywhere you went you knew what we meant.

We meant there were 100% of us. Some of us were old 
just trying to live. Students trying to pay.
Or female intent on staying president of our own bodies.
All of us fighting, O.

You always knew what that meant.
We were ourselves and we had nobody else to be
and we were barely making it.
We looked hard into ourselves and we saw you there.

We were stranded and we were beautiful,
O we were your many and your varied
and your weary, tear-filled people and you knew us.
You knew us and we knew what that meant, O President.