Tender Age

       America, I’ve heard the audio:
       papa, papa, papa [unintelligible]
       [inconsolable crying]

       America, my childhood neighborhood
       was called Freedom Colony.
       I lived on Liberty Lane.

       America, you are grand
       in theory, poor in practice.
       You are not what I learned
       in grade school.

       America, I’m proofreading
       a book on your Constitution.
       I’m considering the letter
       of the law, the spirit of the law.

       America, you’ve caged
       even the babies. They cry
       mostly in Spanish.

       America, this is you.

       America, what I miss most
       about church are the hymns—
       everyone singing the same word
       at the same time. Even the bells
       rang in unison.

       America, I’m wondering
       whom your laws serve, the living
       or the dead.

       America, are there cribs
       for the babies? Bars within bars?

       America, where does your conscience
       live? I mean, from where
       has it been removed?

       America, as a girl I rode my bike
       around the cul-de-sacs: Lexington,
       Bunker Hill, Valley Forge.

       America, I can pick the stars
       and peel the stripes right off you.

       America, I’m considering
       the letter, the spirit.

       America, there is no substitute
       for conscience. I can still feel
       the bells in my hands.

       America, this is us.

       America, we have taken children
       from their mothers. We have separated
       words from their meanings.
       America, will there be neighborhoods
       named for this undeclared war?

       America, where are the babies?

       America, when we want to silence
       the bells, we extinguish
       their open mouths
       on our chests.
Maggie Smith is the author of, most recently, Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017) and Keep
Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change
(One Signal/Simon & Schuster, 2020). Smith's
work has appeared in the
New York Times, The New Yorker, the Paris Review, Poetry, Tin
and the Washington Post.