This is kind of a cool thing for a poet; the word “democracy” is trending on my blog stats. I rarely look at these things, but last week with a little too much time on my hands, I clicked on “keyword activity” on my blog stats and up popped the the D word. So on the day President Obama will make his annual State of the Union address, let me address the word democracy.
It wasn’t just my (relentless) absent-mindedness that lead me to title two of my poems Democracy. It was like going shopping with a friend where you both fall in love with the same dress, both purchase it, and promise to never wear the matchy matchy frocks to the same party. It helps to seal this bargain if you live in different cities, states or countries.
I wrote the following two poems 10 years apart and honestly thought they would never wind up in the universe, let alone the same classrooms. But this is the age of the Internet and geez-o-man, a poet can’t get away with anything these days.
First let me say, I am a big proponent of democracy. Unlike the review of the following poem that I read on some online forum, I do NOT believe that democracy means stealing toilet paper. (Oh how I hope that was just a discussion starter). Rather, I think it means that, despite our differences, we have the ability to get together as a community and see how we can make toilet paper available to all instead of a small minority hoarding all the toilet paper for themselves. Toilet paper is a double ply metaphor in the US with its two ruling parties.
Originally performed at the 1996 National Poetry Slam, this poem was first published in Chicks Up Front (Cleveland State University Press). I wrote this poem reflecting on my time as the Public Information Officer at the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. Let me tell you, people in that organization deserve purple hearts for how they get beat up on a daily basis just trying to make democracy work. Of course, as in any profession, a few of the executives, workers, and residents become crooks, stealing what they can for themselves, hang the needs of others. But most are wearily trying to divide a miniature cupcake 57 different ways.
My office is government issue.
The basics, one metal desk, one chair,
a stack of folders,
four rubber stamps and loose paper in need of baling wire, or a match...
A gray office beside a multicolored room full of folks waiting on
A large woman thumps, thumps.
Thumps past my office.
down the hall to the ladies room.
Sounds of water running followed by
the swing of the squeaky door,
it slaps against the wall
oozing toward a bumpy close.
I look up as she passes again.
White toilet paper.
I watch after her passing.
She stole the toilet paper.
Also government issue,
two rolls per day.
the same government that
murders mountains of forests for the
confusion of paper it takes to
purchase a pencil through
proper procurement procedures.
The same government that
offers tax abated housing to
for profit football teams and
levies income tax on where's-the-profit
The same government that
issues food stamps for
koolaid, popsicles and tater tots
but not for toilet paper,
like it's some privilege
that poor folks don't need.
That same government issues us
two rolls per day,
93% of the days since our last 7% cut.
I rub at the crow's feet which are deepening into my mother's face
and listen to her leaving.
She stole the toilet paper.
The clock silently mouths
that it's just 3:05.
I wait for a moment, reluctant to go
once more against the mountain,
knowing the thin air
makes me lightheaded.
Finally I move.
"Ma'am, did you take our toilet paper?"
She looks straight ahead,
the two rolls propped on knees flung wide.
She is slow to acknowledge my presence,
slow looking up at the self-conscious stand
I have taken beside her over-filled chair.
In a glance
she reminds me that I am too tall,
too thin, too well-dressed,
and too goddamned white.
"I need it," she replies.
And that need, I know,
is not entirely selfish,
that need embraces the needs
of her children,
maybe a neighbor.
But it does not embrace the needs
of her neighbors with whom
she shares this waiting room.
"I have to ask for it back," I say,
citing the needs of the others.
she is a republican.
I retreat to return the basics
to the necessary place,
©1995 Sara Holbrook, Chicks Up Front (Cleveland State University Press)
This next poem I wrote to introduce a chapter on writing poetry in social studies class in my first professional book for teachers. It has since appeared in a couple of anthologies, and my newest book High Impact Writing Clinics (Corwin, 2013), which also contains, among its 600 power point slides, one devoted to this poem along with a recording of me reading it.
Not a flagpole, pointing heavenward
with shining surety.
any one set of colors
jerked cleanly up and down.
Not golden crusted apple pie.
a grey pin-striped uniform.
If there is a metaphor
it is a mud wrestling match,
grit in the eyes
feet a flying—
your ear in my teeth.
And the future?
The future belongs the muckers
still willing to get their hands
who roll up their sleeves
to show their colors.
©2005 Sara Holbrook, Practical Poetry (Heinemann)
So, what do I really think about democracy?
Democracy is constantly evolving. Stay tuned.