Renga for Obama

Renga for Obama

In early 2017, Harvard Review poetry editor Major Jackson curated the “Renga for Obama” project, a celebration of the Obama presidency featuring over two hundred American poets writing in pairs. The project, which originally appeared at Harvard Review Online, was published two stanzas a day for the first hundred days of the Trump presidency and was highlighted in the Washington Post. It has since been released as a limited edition chapbook with an introduction by Major Jackson and is available for purchase in our online store.

The full text is available below.


We are embarking on a literary project of historic proportions, one that expresses the profound sense of gratitude we have for a modern political leader who is measured, thoughtful, humane, and literary-minded. While some of us have not agreed with every decision he has made over the past eight years, the exemplary way in which he has carried out his duty represents the very best of who we are—a nation bonded by a high regard for freedom and the arts as a carrier of our most treasured values. As one poet wrote, “I am so grateful for this opportunity to honor the best president to have served during my lifetime.”

“Renga for Obama” is modeled on a traditional Japanese poetic form. Poets, working in pairs, will compose a tan-renga (short renga) of two stanzas: first, a traditional haiku of three lines of 5-7-5 syllables, followed by a couplet, called a waki, of two lines of seven syllables each (7-7), which is intended as a response to the haiku. A new tan-renga (or pair of stanzas) will be added every day for the first 100 days—or maybe more!—each pair of poets adding to the renga chain. While President Barack Obama occasions our meditation, we hope that the renga will range freely over any number of topics. We only want to emphasize that this poem is intended in a spirit of celebration.

Healing in winter
Lava-flower tea—its wood
Endures like laurel.

Island-born, cool lava-bloom.
You. Presiding, laurel-crowned.

a helicopter
lifts from winter lawns—yet your
verdant hope keeps on

the snow conceals a future
hatch of shadow dragonflies

January 22, 2017
Kimiko Hahn
Chase Twichell

The moon hidden there
In the folds of day, the grey
What blind bold walking

Sane voice burnt in black wax won’t swerve
All I hope for now is reverb

Your weather said cool.
Cigarettes, oratory.
Who dubbed them mom jeans?

The moon doesn’t care, I know.
Your light glows from the inside.

January 24, 2017
Tom Healy
Mark Wunderlich

I wear black today
and step into mid-winter

A gold breeze touches my work
shirt open to some sweet song

Old school. So cool, you.
Solitary writer dreams
Midnight floating world.

Sing Al Green to me, baby.
Sing Barack, sir, as you please.

Nobody said fuck
like he did—a razor
nick quick as his smile

Romantic, dialectic—
yet a middle finger too.

January 27, 2017
Tom Sleigh
John Skoyles

Somebody said Yes
& the blood said Here We Are:
American Song.

And the bones too. The organs
and brain singing oh come back.

A country embraces
absence like something it’s earned—
the gnarled math of dust.

You tried to legalize us,
brief hope. No, no se pudo.

January 29, 2017
Kaveh Akbar
Javier Zamora

Stand tall as a fir
as their axes scrape the bark
of sixteen seasons

new moon drones in borrowed light
trans abolition everywhere

January 30, 2017
Sally Wen Mao
Adam Fitzgerald

Here in our thawed brook
calm floats one brown leaf despite
vile loud counter-song.

Beneath it, water deepens:
the ocean’s voices lifting.

January 31, 2017
Sydney Lea
Nan Cohen

Amazing his grace
Note sermon, her garden
Our house built by slaves

What has flowered here
And not what follows

Made in Hawaii,
Jakarta. African cool.
And then came Michelle.

A garden kept them grounded.
Those two girls. Kale. Kohlrabi.

Here the fallen seeds
push up through the sprouting scrub,
scourge the noxious weeds.

Shook ones’ leaves ante up’ed fête
make ’em say, you. will. miss. me.

What big ears you have,
Mr. President! and heart
Big as big can be,

Big as the Pyramid & Sphinx
In the drifting sands of Time

February 4, 2017
Ron Padgett
Ed Sanders

My Southie mother
would have loved you the way she
crushed on Kennedy

Crushed like blossoms—rose attar
Brushtroke ideogram: you

February 5, 2017
Robert Polito
Mary Karr

Eight years sleeping through the night:
always the given
eight years in reprieve.

The rat sneaking through the weeds
rouses the owl, which takes flight.

February 6, 2017
Michael Klein
Paisley Rekdal

I know I’m alive
for, even through this smoke, I
can still see your face,

your calmness a lei’s fragrant
promise the string will not break.

February 7, 2017
Ocean Vuong
Jane Hirshfield

scant ration of hope,
sustenance—a smiley face
of seven almonds

freedom branches one 2 3
storm light to come & to go

working the sown “and”
dowsing roots from glitter soil
our global bodies

part ether, part earth: gestures
test our being together

February 9, 2017
Laynie Browne
Andrew Zawacki

Waves don’t stop talking.
Where is your voice guiding us
through rocky weather?

Without you the country spins
like a mad compass needle.

February 10, 2017
Naomi Shihab Nye
Ilya Kaminsky

Ledbetter, S-CHIP; GIT-
MO slated, almost, to go;
Rose Garden signings.

A child’s still, clear eye now wet
For the humble heart that cared

February 11, 2017
David Wojahn
Afaa M. Weaver

Now where is your voice?
The after: this hushed city—
rain lashing windows

Storm then come time does
Know my heart will tell

February 12, 2017
Nicole Cooley
Kazim Ali

Snow falls on the path
where inalienable trees
like truth do not bend

sentinels at attention:
watchman’s duty never ends.

February 13, 2017
Jill Bialosky
Jonathan Galassi

We can. We will. Yes.
From marrow to groove. Yes. We
dare burden to break—

to carry our massive us.
Marching poets. Each. Beat. Leaps

February 14, 2017
Edwin Torres
Bob Holman

Unafraid to cry
even at the podium,
steelheads under ice.

Such strict poise: only a knack
for joy scores your brow just so.

February 15, 2017
John Hennessy
Sally Ball

Lunar eclipse—we
Keep remembering your smile
In our firmament

Or now a plate you can eat
your warmed waffle off in peace

beach marriage queer grace
cancer free o-surgery
dear life! we praise you

we make the stars ours again
one by one by one by ten

February 17, 2017
Jen Bervin
Samiya Bashir

Palmyra destroyed,
I couldn’t talk a whole day.
Frond-slaps in dry wind.

Switchblade Trump messing with us.
Please come back when you are strong.

February 18, 2017
Jorie Graham
Henri Cole

Birds, elephants, whales,
us: all go along to show
glory; Obama

slips to the years ahead this
splendor-space, a realm: Bear Ears.

February 19, 2017
Marie Ponsot
Mark Doty

But his gaze and hers
held a beam of light steady
erotic, equal:

We applaud deep roots, the willow
dances the storm in wild resistance.

February 20, 2017
Marie Howe
Cornelius Eady

who touches this book —
I, too, sing America —

keep on keeping on

how many able to breathe
thanks, ACA That’s just math

February 21, 2017
Maureen McLane
Steph Burt

Plumeria blooms—
fragrant islands on a tree
rise from common ground.

Over roots, over water
each passing step firms the earth.

February 22, 2017
Garrett Hongo
Hettie Jones

What’s more complex than
a body’s continental
history shining

past the old America
which is never past itself

February 23, 2017
Khadijah Queen
Alex Dimitrov

We . . . We . . . We . . . We . . . We . . .
The collective noun for all.
We ends and begins.

Cherry blossoms. One river.
Flowers ridden through DC.

February 24, 2017
Camille Dungy
Cate Marvin

Watch him see Michelle:
this is what a feminist
looks like, loves like, now.

Pomegranate, spikenard, phlox:
that garden’s a promise, kept.

February 25, 2017
Jill McDonough
Rosanna Warren

Look how we wave still,
our bodies one glowing beast
united in grief

our linked arms raised, your steadfast
millions churning the bright air.

February 26, 2017
Ada Limón
Dorianne Laux

Tended. Intended.
Care like fingers stripping vines
from the stalk. Sugar

dissolves in our tea, now in-
visible, now everywhere.

February 27, 2017
Vievee Francis
Nick Flynn

Sho. Be brown. Be Black.
Bewilder. Be wild. Be prez.
Be that that’s been that.

Pull dignity off yo’ rack.
Strut that hazelnut strut, Black.

Black beyond moonlight
Man alone before nations
Hail the chief once more

Othello, Othello not
we, the many Iagos

Blue parks, Greenland sharks
Louisiana black bear
Brown out the mean time

The feral silence of earth,
breath held for millennia.

Water, seasons, heart.
You move like the sea’s measure—
dropping the mic cool.

Pinned to my memory: petals of light.
Anxiety, scatter, seagull the sky.

Barack and Michelle
if we sing in this dark wood
would you reappear

pragmatist-preacher & cool
in the grass all I got this.

Keys given over
in such difficult weather—
his coat braced snowfall.

Pikake flowers bloom here,
this season come too early.

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March 6, 2017
Charles Bernstein
Tan Lin

Even my far sea
ferried your voice, which buoyed us,
black bellyfuls, hope

All empires end; we’re empire
Now. New song: disturb the peace.

March 7, 2017
Safiya Sinclair
Amy King

Song in Barry-key:
Be love and light of brisk waves
Of we are, we hold

to be self/selves evident
in light, in darkness: beauty

When you inspired you
did not forget the air re-
quired to continue.

Did not forget the air, no
more water: the fire next time.

March 9, 2017
Jenny Browne
Mark Conway

Dave Chappelle marveled
at a black White House party—
(With Bradley Cooper).

Is it now too late to make
America hip again?

March 10, 2017
Vincent Katz
Elaine Equi

To thrust spangled fist
up, splintering sky, shattering
blue? And finding you?

Barack, a word that means blessed.
Obama, from obam: to bend.

your head gone to gray —
the winter weight of knowing
and knowing better

oceanic what was lost
ice cannot hold back the sea

Bloom spark spits its seed
into the nation’s soil.
A vision sows fire.

To our children you will be
both past and future: a seed.

After long winters
53rd Street sprouts where you
walked, read, loved Michelle.

New blooms in Belfast, in Paris:
the globe turns, still missing you.

March 14, 2017
Tara Betts
Tess Taylor

Blessings, oh Singer,
lilies, flags, oh church, Amens!
Grace, valor, sun’s burst

brings us into the streets. Your
voice and our grief lead us home.

You smiled and lit up
the White House, made it rainbow
because love is love.

That amazing grace you had
in Charleston SC to sing.

At home body surfing
In those violent blue waters—
Clear pupils of the law

Look up! The nebula
exalts a quieter sky.

The moon holds the hand
of the dark, a child afraid
to lose her mother:

O’s hand touched black child’s cheek. Now
ICE rips Mamá’s hand from mine.

I hold the gold lei
Thank you for holding us toward
a realized élan

Thank you in peace, in pieces
Of torn petals, lean back black

The window is cracked.
A blizzard is arriving.
Your clear, distinct mind

a ray of sun in gray sky
melting the Chicago cold.

Such was the dignity
you gave us now we can only
weep for its absence:

after the horn’s supreme note,
a hush gathers, deepens, brims.

March 21, 2017
David Huddle
Maria Hummel

Your haikus’ long song
Our clouds blooming ceaselessly
All luminescence

your hand in Michelle’s high-raised
you rescued the gouged nation

Born in the twenty-
oughts, we watched you model grace.
And soon we will vote.

Come back, young South Side lovers
who read Gandhi: rule again.

March 23, 2017
Marilyn Nelson
D. Nurkse

Hope relentlessly
storms ahead. Ascendant wind
howls its will: Soon. Still.

Dark the dark night. We mothers
Sing our various blossoms.

Spaces between trees—
silences you searched for words
that fit the country.

Jigsaw moon of the tropics
where fugitive tongues crackle.

Sawgrass sounds. The moon
over Bear Ears, Flint spillway,
arctic birds blown south.

Inside the buds, new leaves wake.
Inside us, your strength unfolds.

affordable walls
delivered by droves across
borders without care

each blood boned body cracked the
house, white; gulp blue skies ’til red

White ripple Blue moon
Black boy stirs the pond’s cool face
Water remembers

pulled cig and head ungreyed. How
laughter churched us then. And now?

Picket signs, spring
Some knowledge, supposed to stay
Encoded in smile

Come, rain. Your floods, your thunder.
You can’t halt these seeds from bloom.

Trillions of stars. Ours.
Above, Orion’s hunger.
Low, roots grow like hands.

Sixty more harvests, as the
soil goes now. Then ours no more.

From the great droop’d star
drifts the black bird’s rapt carol.
How do I live now?

It has never been more clear
Thank you water, sun, Karl Marx

Bullets speak ill riffs
in dreams. One hundred ravens
lift Black President

De verdad, spending mad hope
South Side swagger in effect

That deep, quiet voice.
Deep, quiet, ferocious voice
sings. Amazing grace.

Our children’s children’s children
(sweet that sound) speaking of you.

Self-fulfilled, the sun
stands on the shoulders of the
dead—who sang, who sing

as they melt the snow around
their stones shining as the sun

Mourning doves hue &
cry as one branch falls after
another near miss

Obama, grave consoler,
once soothed our mutual grief

The water is gone—
lines like eyelids on concrete
faces of buildings

& beneath the moon: a hoop,
left hand high, windblown strings.

Blue herons persist
in riparian thickets
along Potomac

We needed a sugar snow
a tongue-break in sleep season

The court’s empty now,
no one around for pick-up.
Scoop shot kiss off glass—

Ricocheting history.
History the ricochet.

Red sand under snow:
wild lands sigh to the civil,
inviolate sky.

There the hive hangs undefiled;
honey brims the cells within.

So morning’s first call
quickens even spring-cold limbs
with contagious song!

Through evening’s floating gold.
I am listening to you.

In the lion’s skin
the beginning of something
none of us had seen

out of the strong something sweet;
a bright sun casting shadows.

—then suddenness: wing
of yellow, cracking the glass,
when the whole pane bursts:

the sound of bright shards scattered
over the floor like sunlight.

April 4, 2017
David Baker
Kevin Prufer

In the snow-melted
slush, a nested sun sets. You
knew how to spin thread.

How to slow dance, twirl Michelle.
O sweet nostalgia “At Last.”

A gray day, a cold
room, a memory of the
island while walking

two times round, half a child’s life,
the land must heave its heart back.

What tastes bittersweet
is still sweet; in daybreak pink
Americans waltz—

a chandelier of starlings
tangled in each other’s songs.

Round the paddock too,
a new lob-ear breed gallops,
heedless of horse graves.

Whatso goes leans to sex from
me; I drink the Euphrates.

April 6, 2017
Ange Mlinko
Farid Matuk

The thorns too are bright.
In the sick ward a girl counts
ways the light can break—

a reminding: with steady
rain even the mountains kneel.

That threshold we’d crossed—
have we crossed back—history’s
Jubilee—and Knell—?

Don’t ask, don’t tell? You said NO!
All souls finally equal? Shout! Ask! Tell!

April 7, 2017
Gail Mazur
Lloyd Schwartz

Winter all this spring—
crepe-paper blossoms wither
in cruel weather.

Checks and balances can’t hold.

April 7, 2017
Maggie Dietz
Greg Delanty

To be straight, fall trees
bend in the wind. The pond seeks
light in the near-dark.

How hurt blesses the branches,
how dawn brings them into bloom.

A tree or a stand
—air, house, breath—windward unbuilt
lightless bright unfurled

Breath in a reflecting pool—
the turn of an even sky.

April 8, 2017
Jen Hofer
Erica Dawson

And yet, it hasn’t
blossomed yet: the emoji
for “Barack come back!”

We are waiting—hands on hearts,
basketballs crooked, ball shoes laced

April 9, 2017
Dana Levin
Adrian Matejka

Capacious smarts; stark
redress of grievances. Bare
limbs break then bloom: stars

’ undress; glow of open palms;
long overdue hope, start, psalm.

Heal these thick blood-fields
where no apology grows—
Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner.

Around a widened table,
Feast. On change. Savor honor.

To run into spring—
what goes up must then come down
Like weather, ethics—

Someone’s going to catch the
damn ball, throw it high again

go high when discourse/
spirals downward to undermine/
winds of chance and change

twine together vast, grim storm
the oak, spruce, magnolia, palm

April 11, 2017
Florence Ladd
Kirun Kapur

Bears Ears, Katahdin, now saved
kuākea, Sand to Snow

Ellis Island rain, inside
my pocket, third class steerage

Sakura on campus
at full volume:
haven’t they learned anything?

In gaslight pink petals sift,
drift. Hard fruit will come of this.

Frail cherry blossoms
Hit by freak springtime snowfall
Still singing. Come sun.

Agitation of petals,
Worms churning beneath wet grass.

What may this old form
spread out like clover over
the nation impart?

The eyes of the long-gone past
Will always remain open

The bee-loud linden
blooms—bright yellow elegies
against extinction.

How to mitigate collapse:
open a nation’s garden.

By motorbike, spring
markets blur—you drive into
green islands of sound

Sheltered monk seal, black coral,
seamounts: ocean monuments

April 14, 2017
Brian Turner
Donika Kelly

To share an island.
And (floating) roots. A ticket.
Water’s syllables.

Glitter path on homesick pond.
Spring frost. Moonlit consciousness.

Mean River rising,
and you standing like the tree
beside the water . . .

Crucial purposes fulfilled:
no fear of beauty, of truth.

sea black/sea(l) light: we
turn to what (we) hope won’t bleed:
hear (me): see: be(lieve):

Learned to wangle a deathly
system. No Monet fuzz there.

April 15, 2017
Dean Rader
Kathleen Ossip

Oh, April, what lies
this full moon passes over,
what cross purposes.

The moon itself cannot lie
but dumbly sings only, “Moon.”

April 16, 2017
Donna Masini
April Bernard

emerging maple
leaves and their bright red seed-wings
sail into spring seas

Calf nurses beneath pink moon
while fitful geese carve the sky.

April 16, 2017
Sidney Wade
Anya Silver

Around the White House
Gold light forever shines on
With your memory

Illumines late-season thanks:
bloom bitten by frost’s surprise.

April 17, 2017
Annie Finch
Keetje Kuipers

Long for that lucid
inch of tide to gloss again
the harlequin stones

Let rivers gleam into seas
to rise closer to the sun

Weddings on the moon
All the vows were drifting glass
Now we stand on earth

Obergefell v. Hodges
Our lace tessellate endures

The frozen swell: heart
gap, sun-locked wall of boulders
makes no neighbor good.

The sharpest winter shadows
Slip off into fogs of spring.

Hawk wing span open
White House windows know Black free.
Rainfall sudden light.

Open, yes, hawk or flower.
Above him, the leaves applaud.

You opened both hands,
let ours go: we hurtle back,
reach for each other—

each rearranged into ache.
Ache springing into action.

Altitude. Your words
soaring over winter fields.
Contrails in dark sky.

Below, blue lambos reflect
hope: bringing us back to light.

April 20, 2017
Bruce Willard
Gary Jackson

When you pause, the world
waits, breathing in while the trees
breathe out, Obama

now, we want your language back
is it where you are: in us?

April 20, 2017
Ellen Bass
Katie Peterson

don’t mow your lawn, wild
flowers will grow. but that’s if
you have a lawn. who

siphons sun grass silt/hugs seed?
do-good kernels power bleed.

Once in a country,
song that feathered, bright anthem:
Aretha, do right.

Cold morning, hope’s counterpoint.
Michelle’s coat, too light, tied closed.

Winter won’t relent,
won’t release the language trapped—
torn page under ice

wind carries rebuttal blues
to Spring’s visionary eardrums

After eight years
of love, burden, spring blooms tender
earned, radiant peace.

Break the state of ever-war,
dark birthstone, the heart’s carnage.

April 22, 2017
Bob Hicok
Charles Fort

You perfectly fit
the house that stood for a time-
less sense of purpose

Someone’s swiped the welcome mat
wiped their wee hand on the drapes

April 23, 2017
Mary Jo Bang
D. A. Powell

Our president gone
Grief shall not be our master
3 million march strong

Witty. Compassionate. Strong.
Adjectives line up, march on.

April 23, 2017
Marilyn Chin
Linda Pastan

My trombone hits G
above the staff: regal tone
sings like memory . . .

nothing has touched me like this,
like this, since last December.

How many boys now
bear your name, your global sons
coming up hard, fast

New sounds enter our story
Teach us to hear other ways

As Rome’s calendars
began in March: Obama,
we started with you.

But oppose the Muslim ban.
Donald Trump: very bad man.

blue for renegade
for fragility and luck
& for one who is blessed

by better skies, brightening.
Bending arc of history.

April 25, 2017
Dara Wier
Brynn Saito

Who said a night sky
Only appears black then made
Bombs burst them blacker?

No broom fit for ash from war,
Or hair from fades and presses.

Wings gliding at dusk
One book inside another
Night fills emptied shelves

In the ditch, water flowing—
Now an eagle feather wind

April 26, 2017
Susan Stewart
Arthur Sze

Four bright bits of blue
tape mark where the poster hung
in the bathroom stall.

The ghost of old sentiment
vibrates cyan and urgent.