Call Us What We Carry
by Amanda Gorman
(Viking Books, 2021)

Born in 1998, Amanda Gorman is part of that Generation Z that has tasked itself with stopping the climate from changing and correcting social ills. Since her performance as inaugural poet at the presidential inauguration in 2021, she’s appeared on the cover of Vogue and Time. She even made an appearance to read her poetry at the Super Bowl pregame show. In an interview with Vogue, she estimated that she’s turned down about $17 million in endorsements that didn’t speak to the kind of content she wanted to be aligned with. If there’s anybody destined to make the next 30 before 30 list, she’s it. Viking couldn’t get Gorman’s first major collection of poetry to press fast enough, a collection so full of vacuous guff it’s a shoo-in for a Pulitzer.

Call Us What We Carry is Amanda Gorman’s first full-length book of poetry. (There was an earlier book from 2015 that is apparently out of print and nearly impossible to find.) In it, she speaks on all our behalves, practically every line beginning with “we.” The book’s prefatory poem promises and warns, “This book does not let up.” Heed that warning; not for one second does this book let up with its COVID social distancing agony or its Chicken Little environmentalism. The current trend of erasure poetry is kept alive here, and she does a little throwback as well, including a few concrete poems that were a popular style in the 60’s. There’s also a few annoying poems where she runs her lines from bottom of page to top and then top to bottom, forcing the reader to spin the book like a steering wheel, but perhaps this is a necessary diversion for poems that have so little to say.

The poor-me agony of the poet can be found here on nearly every page. “Because every step we’ve taken/Has required more than we had to give.” Or this one, “Some days, we just need a place/Where we can bleed in peace./Our only word for this is/poem.” It’s hard to take this wailing seriously at all. Gorman is a Harvard grad (cum laude) and recently signed a deal with Estee Lauder to be their global ambassador. These rich corporate endorsements are just a little incongruent with the life of strife she tries to leave on the page.

With so many poets having embarrassed themselves trying to write rhyming quatrains in the style of Emily Dickinson, who set an impossibly high bar a century ago, you’d think they’d have stopped by now, but no:

We see a dad with a stroller taking a jog.
Across the street, a bright-eyed girl chases her dog.
A grandma on her porch fingers her rosaries.
She smiles as her young neighbor brings her groceries.

The Recluse from Amherst is face-palming in her grave. And then it looks like she might have been attempting to channel Dorothy Parker with this rhyming couplet: “The mask around our ear/Hung itself into the year.” The only thing worse than doggerel is rhyming doggerel.

Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised to see a GenZer write a poem in the form of iPhone text message balloons. Her poem “At First,” one of the many poems she chronicles COVID with, takes a swipe at Trump’s COVID response: “Hope we are doing well/As we can be/In all these times/Unprecedented & unpresidented.” Certainly Joe Biden’s vetting staff would have been happy to see this one before inviting her to recite at the inauguration. (In one of her many other plague poems, she adopts urban vernacular with “COVID tryna end things.”)

There have been a few poets over the centuries that were profound, a few more who have faked it, and then we have the hordes with their poetic faux-profundity. One way so many get away with it is with opaque obscurity. Maybe it takes some sort of specialized talent to write in metaphor so obscure that it can be passed off as profundity, but Gorman can’t cook up a metaphor opaque enough to hide her rank silliness. In her poem “Pre-Memory,” she tries to pass herself off as an intellectual with this: “We posit that pre-memory is the phenomenon in which we remember that which we are experiencing.” And then later: “All we know so far is we are so far/From what we know.” Pre-remember what we are experiencing?

If COVID is to GenZ what WWII was to the Greatest Generation, Gorman rushes in to claim selfless bravery with her poem “War: What, Is It Good?” “The mask is our medal of honor,” she bloviates. “It has our war written all over it.” One would think that not even the most egotistical of poets would have the audacity to make such a claim, but apparently if you are America’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, you can get away with such malarkey.

America’s youngest inaugural poet is loaded with self-esteem, referring to herself in the third person about her trip to D.C. on inauguration day. “We’ve braved the belly of the beast,” she says about the hill she climbed to get there—the hill she climbed in an expensive designer suit, Harvard diploma folded in her back pocket. She’s grateful for it all, very grateful indeed. The acknowledgments at the end of her book goes on for six pages, and of course includes God. She tells us how hard the book was to write, and how hard it must be for us to read. (You got that right.) “For your getting here, I salute you,” she gushes. Oh, don’t mention it.

Click here to buy Call Us What We Carry.