Grace Cavalieri, Poet Laureate of Maryland, 2018–
From Hell To Hallelujah
The following poem was commissioned to celebrate the first statewide observance of slavery emancipation in Maryland. The site was the Mount Clare former plantation in Carroll Park, Baltimore, MD. (1700’s)
FROM HELL TO HALLELUJAH
In honor of Maryland’s Inaugural Slave Emancipation Day, Nov 1, 2022
From the dangerous landscapes of human discontent
from the dark soil of uncaring and cruelty—
a song rose up that would not die—
the blue bells on the hill flourished—
birds woke up early to sing at dawn.
From the grass grown over the footprints
that walked here and worked here and worked here—
From the sad stories there comes a harmony—
small heart-embers become an arc of light.
From the frozen sunflowers straining toward sun
from the heavy weight of history's heart—
power and courage.
From the bodies that turned to stone
so the sun couldn’t burn and the rain wouldn’t tear
came the chanting
the wondrous opening
the secret words.
From the mud of human despair
came the natural mystery of love and friendship between one another
hidden from the big house in the fields
by the secret protection of the moon.
From a kind of hell came the Hallelujah of marriage
the braids of grass
the wise blood of elders.
Those who worked here in rented space
brought us to this day where strength is eternalized—
the suffering we saw changed into this spectacle
the ghosts from yesterday riding on the back of dreams
are now flowers of experience.
Once someone here was tired
and sat under a simple tree for a moment
to take a sip of water—
today there is a fountain of what was wanted.
The past is halfway done, the past is half done
the past is halfway done, the past is half done
there is work to be done
the past is halfway done.
But today is a festivity of the past here before us
the footprints under the grass
to a largeness of celebration—
after a kind of Hell—a salute to Hallelujah.
This poem was written to be read aloud and is a good example of an “occasional poem.”
This is necessarily different from a poem for text because of the aesthetics on the page.
Line lengths and punctuation are designed for a rhetorical advantage.
I wanted to address the hardship of the slaves that mined the bogs in this plantation. The poem’s theme is how the enduring elements of love and dignity allowed a bitter lifestyle to exist beyond its cruel limitations. The poem honors that and carries it to a present-day celebration. My intentions were realized, in a way, so that the words could be spoken for a public audience. This means that the imagery had to be strong and able to be imagined; the poem had to have momentum and power, so anaphora and repetition were good choices. I wanted to refer to “people, place, thing” enough so that the abstractions rested on bones and did not fly away. Since I had a definite agenda and a good topic, I’m satisfied with the result. The subject was so potent that it lent itself to dramatic imagery.
I wrote the poem, and designed its content for the exact audience to be addressed: African American members of the Baltimore community, many of whom are descendants of slaves. I wrote it for this special day and this precise objective.
The audience was reverent and attentive. The day-long festivities included Jazz and Hip Hop and many spirited performances. The spoken poem is small in comparison, so I preceded with a poem about exactly that; and talked about what poetry does—“although it has such a small voice” that people mistake it for “an insignificant voice.” The poem below, then, set the scene for my occasional poem, because I was reading between a jazz concert, Hip Hop, and other highly animated presentations.
HOW A POEM BEGINS
It’s a little thing. Could be
the long o’s in Kosovo, or
alone in the street
after the hurricane
Perhaps we tell of a child
beneath the flood
in New Orleans, or
feet bloody from
walking the rubble
They say poetry is
such a tiny voice
no one can hear.
sometimes it says
“I can't breathe.”
That's why we write of such
little things, insignificant things.
After reading this, it lay the groundwork for a different listening than was happening before. Then when I read “From Hell To Hallelujah,” the audience was ready.
I believe writing poems for occasions is the duty of poetry and not just poets laureate.
Poems are meant to celebrate, commemorate, and honor rituals. This is an ancient practice we carry forward. I love to be asked. I love the challenge of matching the word to the event. I know the “occasional” poem is different from one I would write for the page because its layout may be more flexible, for the speaking. But I could never write one I was ashamed to have read on the page.
I would include this poem in a book, with the annotation that it was written for an occasion. That says right away that the rules are a little more relaxed. I’m sure a sonnet or sestina could be just as effective in certain settings—yet this particular public event was for a particular culture—one more accustomed to rhetorical poetry.
I’m happy with the choice I made in this case. Choices are different for every “occasion,” but I would not write anything I did not believe in or could not publish.