Pushcart XLI: David Hernandez, “We Would Never Sleep” (poem) from The Sun #475


We the people, we the one
times 320 million, I’m rounding up, there are really
too many grass blades to count,
wheat plants to tally, just see
the whole field swaying from here to that shy
blue mountain. Swaying
as in rocking, but also the other
definition of the verb: we sway, we influence,
we impress. Unless we’re asleep,
unless the field’s asleep, more a postcard
than a real field, portrait of the people
Complete poem available online at The Sun

Colors. That was the first thing I noticed: grass blades, wheat plants, blue mountain. Like an altered version of “America the Beautiful” with its amber waves of grain, purple mountains, and fruited plain, combining nicely with the notion of America as a population of 320 million blades of grass that make up a huge, beautiful lawn, too many to count, though of course we can and do count them, every ten years in fact. I let myself get distracted by wondering about the difference between RGB and CMYK color mixing systems, and through that realized red was missing. I noticed the influence and the sleep, those are electric words right now, featuring in the political realm as they do, right next to all that American imagery – am I the only one who felt it? – and recalling the title. So I read on.

You know that shooting last week?
I will admit the number dead
was too low to startle me
if you admit you felt the same,
and the person standing by you
agrees, and the person beside that person.
It has to be double digits,
don’t you think?

Red, on.

I wasn’t sure what shooting the poem referred to, so many of them, almost daily, headlines like, in April 2015, Phoenix, AZ: five family members killed “after an apparent dispute over the family business burst into gunfire”, or Douglas County, GA: “Five dead, including gunman” or September in Minnesota: “Five dead in apparent murder-suicide.” Those probably don’t count, though, because they’re family matters, and even though that’s a big part of the problem, it isn’t like a terrorist or a crazy person, something that could actually happen to you, because I’m sure everyone in those families knew they’d die at the hand of their own one day and we know we won’t. So maybe the poem refers to the Chattanooga shootings which has its own Wikipedia entry.

But we’re supposed to be talking poetry here.

I find the progression of the poem to be effective in delivering an emotional kick. It’s true, we don’t pay much attention to “little” incidents any more. Two, three dead, we shrug and move on. Once you’ve read about twenty children plus six of their teachers murdered within minutes, you need more than two or three bodies to make an impression.

The poem spends a little time in that place, but then proposes a solution…

I’m thinking every gun
should come with a microphone,
each street with loudspeakers
to broadcast their banging.
We would never sleep, the field
always awake, acres of swaying
up to that shy blue mountain…

… and comes back to join up the circle, and recapitulate the American landscape, the 320 million blades of grass – minus a few here and there – and all of us sleeping, and just what will it take to wake us up?

Hernandez is known, it seems, as a humor poet, which surprised the hell out of me. I’ve encountered him once before via Pushcart 2014 and his poem “All-American”. I called it “conversational”, something I feel in this poem as well. Both are from his 2016 collection Dear, Sincerely which is indeed full of humor (“We Real Nerds”, an ode to university parking department FAQs, a letter from the sun) punctuated with poems, like this one, that stop your heart, and make you glad you’ve still got a heart that breaks.


2 responses to “Pushcart XLI: David Hernandez, “We Would Never Sleep” (poem) from The Sun #475

  1. Ideally, I think poetry finds a sweet spot between being so accessible it’s banal on the one hand or being so obtuse nothing gets through on the other. I think poetry has, for a long time, chosen to err on the side of obtuseness. It’s safer for a poet to write something impenetrable than to write something that any halfway accomplished reader could look at and be able to summarize in one or two passes. This one definitely bucks that trend. It’s obvious in one reading that the theme of this poem could be restated as something like “We are not shocked enough by bad things in our society anymore.” The question is whether the poem is so plain, it ends up losing its poetic force. I think this was a brave poem to write, because the poet had to trust his language to have enough force to carry the day to move the reader even while giving a message we’ve all heard before. I think the poet managed to find the sweet spot, which is to say the poem succeeded. I wish I felt that way about most of the poems in Pushcart…or in Poetry Magazine.

    • I have to disagree with you (and my buddy Ken), as I have before on this issue – who gets to decide the “sweet spot”? Published poets? Unpublished poets? The average woman in a dentist’s waiting office? Me? Book critics?

      I don’t think poetry has to find a spot between banal and obtuse, but it has to find a way to express something that has, as you’ve mentioned, been said a million times before, in a way that makes it new (™Pound), that amplifies or adds a neglected pov or relates it to something previously unconnected. The references and approach can be common (a field, direct speaker-to-reader monologue) or esoteric (when you say Wegener in terza rima I say huh?) or culture-specific, and the art of all poems is not always accessible to all, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Some poems just won’t let me go, even though I don’t understand them; they’re like a spiritual mystery: how does it work? It’s an invitation to expand our horizons – as well as to look to the ordinary, what’s right in front of us every day.

      Of course, that’s just my point of view, which is also subjective. But isn’t art all subjective? It’s why there’s no real way to define beauty.

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