(Poem) ‘Sunrise Over the U.S.A.’ by Harriet Ann Ellenberger

Sunrise Over the U.S.A.

In place of the old dream and the old lies,

I wish for my country of origin a new story,

one that goes like this:

 

We rode roughshod, we drove pedal to the metal,

we blew our own cylinders.

We squeezed the life from all we could lay hands on,

converted our kill into currency,

bowed low before the greenback god we made.

 

Then — an inch from extinction —

in the midst of brawling, bawling blowing each other away,

we woke from our nightmares.

Watched the sun rise.

Said this is a good day to live.

 

We started to share food and keep house.

 

It was astonishing how quickly the tall-grass prairie,

intricate forest that bends with the wind,

grew back.

Astonishing how quickly the milkweed pods shot up

and the monarchs laid ever more eggs on them

and the great butterfly migration strengthened.

Astonishing when legions of Canada Geese flew south again,

barking and writing long flat V’s in the sky.

 

We woke, and the earth under our feet decided to live.

 

It was that definitive, that clear a turning.

 

 

− Harriet Ann Ellenberger

How “Sunrise” came to be:

My problems with my country of origin started in 1953, when my second-grade class began practicing to survive nuclear war. The alarm would sound, and we would quickly and not very quietly line up single-file and proceed into the windowless hallway, where each of us would face the wall and cover our head with our arms. I remember crying myself to sleep that year because I felt sure that our “civil-defense drills” were no protection at all. Which meant that either the adults in my world were liars or they were crazy. I didn’t know which it was, but I swore with all the passion of my seven-year-old self that I would never ever forget that children are not stupid, no matter what adults may think.

My problems with “America” got worse in seventh-grade geography class, when I was cleaning up cabinets in the back of the room after school, probably as punishment for some infraction I can’t remember. I discovered at the bottom of one cabinet a box of pamphlets published during World War II, intended for young people. The pamphlets were full of pictures of Stalin surrounded by schoolchildren, being given flowers by schoolchildren, and the text was about the brave citizens of the Soviet Union and “our Friend, the Russian Bear.” Our Friend, the Russian Bear? I experienced an explosion of light in my head. I realized that we were being systematically lied to by adults, and that the lies changed as “the enemy” changed.

The older I got and the more people I met and the more I learned about world history, the more outraged I became. By the time the United States invaded Iraq under false pretences, I was spitting nails and breathing fire out of my nostrils every time I heard the name of my country of origin. And this continued up to the time of writing “Sunrise,” in February 2012, when something in me suddenly and inexplicably changed.

My father’s mother, the only grandmother I knew, used to say to me, “If wishes were horses, poor men would ride.” (By that, she meant, Don’t get your hopes up, girl.) But I disagree with my grandmother: I think wishes are not a waste of time. A wish is a beginning, and to imagine a turning away from destruction and a turning toward life in a country with so much blood on its hands is necessary. Dream-body leads, and only then can touch-body follow.

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3 thoughts on “(Poem) ‘Sunrise Over the U.S.A.’ by Harriet Ann Ellenberger

  1. Harriet,
    We have traveled very likewise paths. I can relate to your experiences 100% re: our nation of origin.
    As such, my appreciation for your poem is akin to that which I would feel for an antidote when mortally poisoned.
    It is a strong dose of hope you’ve administered by writing it.

    Like

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