Amy Hassinger

Writer. Teacher. Manuscript Consultant.

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke's "America, I Sing You Back"

Poetry and song are inextricable, going all the way back to Homer. Witness the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, folk balladeer, modern-day bard. There are mixed feelings about that decision in the literary world, but if nothing else, it’s a reminder to us of that basic link between song and the spoken word.

We tend to think of Dylan as a songwriter, as opposed to a poet. But there are poets, too, whose work crosses over into the territory of song. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke is one such poet. An Indigenous writer, performer, and activist, Allison has lived all over the country, working in the fields as a child in North Carolina, Texas, and the Great Plains. While she teaches now at the University of California at Riverside, she lived for years in Nebraska, teaching at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, as well as in the University of Nebraska low-residency MFA in Writing Program. She also directs the Literary Sandhill Cranefest Retreat in the Platte Valley.

I’m so pleased to share with you her poem, “America, I Sing You Back.” In this poem, she speaks from that Indigenous perspective, as well as the perspective of a mother calling to her child, America, our shared country. She thinks of this poem as a kind of extension of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’ poem, “I, Too,” and she gives a nod to both these poets in her epigraph. Though Allison wrote this poem years ago, it is very much a poem for our time.

Here it is,

America, I Sing You Back

by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke

for Phil Young and my father Robert Hedge Coke;

for Whitman and Hughes

 

America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.

Sing back the moment you cherished breath.

Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.

 

Before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,

held her cradleboard, wept her into day.

My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,

held her severed cord beautifully beaded.

 

My song helped her stand, held her hand for first steps,

nourished her very being, fed her, placed her three sisters strong.

My song comforted her as she battled my reason

broke my long-held footing sure, as any child might do.

 

As she pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,

as I cried this country, my song grew roses in each tear’s fall.

 

My blood-veined rivers, painted pipestone quarries

circled canyons, while she made herself maiden fine.

 

But here I am, here I am, here I remain high on each and every peak,

carefully rumbling her great underbelly, prepared to pour forth singing—

 

and sing again I will, as I have always done.

Never silenced unless in the company of strangers, singing

the stoic face, polite repose, polite while dancing deep inside, polite

Mother of her world. Sister of myself.

 

When my song sings aloud again. When I call her back to cradle.

Call her to peer into waters, to behold herself in dark and light,

day and night, call her to sing along, call her to mature, to envision—

then, she will quake herself over. My song will make it so.

 

When she grows far past her self-considered purpose,

I will sing her back, sing her back. I will sing. Oh I will—I do.

America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.

 

 

You can find “America, I Sing You Back” in Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s collection, Streaming. “America, I Sing You Back" is used by permission from Streaming (Coffee House Press, 2014). Copyright © 2014 by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke.