Poem for the Dream: The Mystic Chords of Memory

"Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!" ~from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech August 28, 1963
“Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!” ~from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech August 28, 1963

I never actually saw a sign that said “Whites Only”, I never saw an African-American turned down for services or merchandise in a store, I never saw the outright physical proof of institutionalized discrimination. In the white little world of my childhood, it was simply understood. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on this day in 1963, I was two years old and some of the bloodiest battles for equal rights were still ahead, and it is those battles I remember, and the words that were spoken in the heat of that battle.

I never heard my parents say a single derogatory remark about anyone who wasn’t “white” though I heard many others. In our house sports superseded anyone’s skin color. When the Pittsburgh Pirates played, we were cheering Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Matty Alou, and I think we may have ignored a “color barrier” even without the influence of sports. My mother had attended school in the 1930s with African-American girls, when my father played as a musician in swing bands through the years he was friends with many African-American musicians. My brother and I had African-American friends in high school, friendships which lasted in many cases, and my sister as well.

I remember wishing in my early years and in my childish way that people would just let it go, it was so confusing to fight with each other, and to carry this hate for people I didn’t know in the case one would show up in my life. How would I know? I knew their skin was darker than ours but, darn, I come from a family who gets pretty tan in the summer and later we laughed because we were darker than some of the African-Americans we knew.

I remember thinking I couldn’t keep track of all this when I had to learn to spell and my multiplication tables and all the flowers in everyone’s garden and take care of all those things that were more immediate in my life, and when I began to see things as an artist I saw different skin tones as a challenge of art, not hate.

And even then, the issue wasn’t just civil rights for African-Americans, it was equality for everyone so we could all live together as a nation, as it was for Lincoln during the Civil War, and as it is for us today. I wrote this poem for the election day in 2008, as we keep on marching for liberty and justice for all.

The Mystic Chords of Memory

I begin with an epigraph, the closing paragraph of Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stre[t]ching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

And so do we remember, in this time of change,
Another time of strife and uncertainty
When our nation would be pulled apart
Not by something so esoteric as a failing economy
But by the real threat of war, among ourselves, on our own soil;
Not a metaphorical war, not of words and ideas,
But of guns and blood,
And brothers and fathers and mothers and sisters,
Neighbors and friends, everyone, no one would escape its reach.
And so we fought that war, and though severely wounded, we survived.

Yet a century later we were still fighting this battle in our streets.
We forgot those who had already given the last full measure of devotion(1) for this cause.
We were reminded that we must live together as brothers or perish together as fools(2),
And that the fierce urgency of Now(3) demanded that we make real the promises of democracy(4),
Echoing the words of a century before, and even a century before that.
But we took away his dream, too,
And the dreams of others
Until the bloodshed frightened us,
Reminded that a balance cannot exist without compromise,
And an uncompromising nature destroys everything in its path, including itself.

I remember those days of my childhood,
Of the fledgling hope that we could simply live together in understanding,
But I watched people tuck away their hatred to keep for another day
And it only grew distorted,
And a half century later, we still fought the battle in our hearts.
But to my great surprise and joy,
I watched a nation of people,
Touched by the better angels of their nature(5),
March to the promised land(6),
Happily wait all day, finally cast their vote
For change, for hope, and for love of this great experiment in liberty and freedom,
Ready to begin again the work of remaking America(7).

1Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”, dedication of the battlefield at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863.
2Martin Luther King, Jr., quote.
3Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream”, speech given at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., August 28, 1963.
4Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream”, speech given at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., August 28, 1963.
5Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address”, given in Washington, D.C., March 4, 1861.
6Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land”, speech given in Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968.
7Barack Obama, “Inaugural Address”, given in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2009.

“The Mystic Chords of Memory” © 2009 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Read more poetry here on Today or visit my poetry page to see more about my poetry and other writing, and to purchase Paths I Have Walked.

poetry book

Paths I Have Walked, collected poems.

I’m proud to offer a folio of my poetry

Paths I Have Walked: the poetry and art of Bernadette E. Kazmarski


People who attended one or more of my poetry readings encouraged me to publish some of my poetry in a book from the beginning.

Once I completed my 2010 poetry reading, my fourth featuring the final piece of artwork in the “Art of the Watershed” series, I decided it was time to publish something and it should be those four poetry readings.

Poetry books are not best-sellers; it’s difficult to convince a publisher to risk effort on a beginning poet, and while self-publishing is the best option it’s not inexpensive and once you’ve got the book, someone’s got to market it. Plus, I’m a graphic designer and I designed books for years, and I want things my way.

All of this is a recipe for a little bit of trouble, but I decided the book was well worth the effort so I designed the book myself and had a set printed—no ISBN or anything formal, but it’s a start! I’m really excited to offer it.

Books are 4.25″ x 11″, 40 pages of information and poetry, with glossy covers featuring “Dusk in the Woods” and little thumbnails of all four pieces in “Art of the Watershed”.

$8.00 each plus $2.50 shipping (they are oversized for mailing first class).

You can order one on my poetry page, or in my Marketplace.

About the books and the poetry readings

My biggest inspiration for poetry, prose and artwork is the world right around me, and I enjoy the opportunity to share it from the perspective of one who walks and hikes and bikes and carries a camera, art materials and journal everywhere—even around the house—so the inspirations are fresh.

In December, 2006, two of my poems were chosen to be published on a section of the Prairie Home Companion website entitled “Stories From Home/First Person” for submissions of writing about the place we feel most familiar. I’m a long-time listener to PHC and reader of Garrison Keillor’s books as well as a daily listener to The Writer’s Almanac featuring news about writers and writing and of interest to writers as well as a poem, all compiled and read by Keillor himself. I was astonished to find my poems were among the first chosen from apparently thousands, and so happy to be able to share them with a potential audience of so many similarly inclined writers and readers.

My poetry readings and art exhibits were the vision of Maggie Forbes, executive director of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, after learning of my publishing of those two
poems. I owe her many thanks for encouraging me to present this combination of my visual and literary art, a first for me. I love that building, every inch of it, and the opportunity to bring people in to visit is an honor.

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