Three Poems for Surviving Trump


Nancy LeTourneau of Washington Monthly had a very timely article yesterday about emotionally surviving the Trump presidency. Keeping abreast of the news these days, she observed, is “toxic and exhausting,” leading to fatalism and burnout. She shared a David Whyte poem to lift the spirits, however, and I have added two others in the same vein, by Lucille Clifton and Emily Dickinson.

LeTourneau quotes Boston Globe’s Michael Cohen as someone who sums up her state of mind

For millions of Americans, Trump has become an unbearable, infuriating, enraging, and draining presence in our national life…

I’m the ultimate optimist. I’ve written countless articles about how the world is getting safer, freer, wealthier, and healthier — and it is. But the collective effect of Trump’s presidency has caused me — and many I’ve spoken with — to question our belief in and hopefulness about America. Reactionary forces that we all know existed, but many of us believed were on the decline, have been unleashed on the country. Racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, which of course have always existed, have become normalized and part of the political discourse in ways that are completely alien to our experience of American politics. Public corruption, the shredding of political norms, and a deficit of public compassion now seems to define our body politic.

LeTourneau’s spirits picked up, however, after she returned to a community organizer’s article on handling one’s emotions in dark times. Marshall Ganz identifies the danger of negative feedback loops and then provides an antidote:

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.

After quoting Ganz, LeTourneau said she stopped enumerating all of Trump’s outrages with a friend and then turned to a Whyte poem about finding faith in dark times. (I once shared it during Advent.) For the purposes of her column, LeTourneau changes the word “faith” to “hope,” but I have restored the original wording. Faith works just as well here if you see it as faith that the best in humans will prevail:


I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.

The darkness that we witness appears final only if we allow it to gain ascendency. The key is to hold on to the light, which is what Clifton does in her own poem about the moon.

The moon has bad associations for Clifton—she experienced it as the eye that witnessed and did nothing when her father abused her—but after he died (he is “the man who killed the bear,” the “coalminer’s son”), she rethought her relationship with it. The moon, she observes, knows how to borrow light even when all around is dark. In other words, it doesn’t need a lot in order to shine:

only after the death
of the man who killed the bear,
after the death of the coalminer’s son,
did i remember that the moon
also rises, coming heavy or thin
over the living fields, over
the cities of the dead;
only then did i remember how she
catches the sun and keeps most of him
for the evening that surely will come;
and it comes.
only then did i know that to live
in the world all that i needed was
some small light and know that indeed
i would rise again and rise again to dance.

When she was a colleague, Lucille once mentioned to me that she would read this poem at conventions for abuse survivors. It assured them that, even when one feels like a city of the dead, one can rise again to dance. All one needs is “some small light.”

Dickinson would agree. A tough-minded explorer of human psychology—no maudlin sentimentalist she—the poet tells us that hope can sing without stopping even during the sorest gale, in the chillest land, or on the strangest sea:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Right now our “Extremity” is Trump and the political party that enables him. As depressing as that is, don’t forget that Hope is near at hand. It will sing to us, caress us with its feathers, and keep us warm.

This entry was posted in Clifton (Lucille), Dickinson (Emily), Whyte (David) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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