Michael Kleber-Diggs’ Poem, ‘America is Loving Me to Death’

Pictured is the poet Michael Kleber-Diggs, with photo credit to Ayanna Muata.

Again, thanks to the Academy of American Poets (poets.org), I come across a poem that, well, resonates with where we are with *looks around*. It actually was published today, Nov. 5, as part of the Poem-A-Day the Academy does, which I highly recommend.

According to the Academy, Michael Kleber-Diggs’ is the author of the poetry book, Worldly Things, published by Milkweed Editions in June 2021, and which was selected for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, per his WordPress site here.

I always love seeing that great poets have WordPress blogs, too! He also writes for a newspaper, the Star Tribune (the largest newspaper in Minnesota), as a literary critic, and he teaches poetry through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. I was whoa’ed by the blog, then by the newspaper, and then by the prison workshop. That is so neat. I admire that greatly. People in prison are humans, folks, and there is nothing wrong with giving them the beauty of language and writing, too. I appreciate that there are people like Kleber-Diggs (and Clint Smith, another poet, who comes to mind) doing that work.

So, the poem, which is a prose poem, (something I’m not as familiar with and I believe I haven’t reviewed before, but it’s what it sounds like) is entitled, “American is Loving Me to Death.” It’s obviously too long to replicate here in its entirety. Here is the link to the full poem, and an excerpt:

In America there’s one winning story—no adaptations. The
Story imagines a noble, grand progress where we’re all united.
Like truths are as self-evident as the Declaration states.
Or like they would be if not for detractors like me, the ranks of
Vagabonds existing to point out what’s rotten in America,
Insisting her gains come at a cost, reminding her who pays, and
Negating wild notions of exceptionalism—adding ugly facts to
God’s-favorite-nation mythology.

First off, titles aren’t everything, but whew, I love me a great title, and this is a great title. As I’ll touch on later, it evokes the idea of a God who loves you … angrily. The Old Testament version of God, if you will. It tells you everything before you even get to the poem, which, “In America there’s one winning story—no adaptations.” Gah. Gah! That cuts deep and rings as true as “freedom rings from shore to shore,” as it were.

I got chills when he began evoking the names of all those lost to a careless, cold criminal justice system over the years from Tamir Rice to Sandra Bland to George Floyd to Breonna Taylor. The fact that a lot of us can even rattle these names off like this is revealing in its own way. The fact that it’s even become a “rattling off of names” one after the other is also revealing in its own way. That is, it’s not just that all of these incidents happened, but that we have so much, well, excuse the pun, white space, below the bottom of the list so as to add even more names to the list. Inevitability. That’s the the part that hits the hardest and brings those chills: how inevitable a continuation of such a list is in our current body politic and culture.

Kleber-Digs finishes off with a rhetorical question, “Michael, do you love this nation?” The tug-of-war mentally for those who live in this nation, and by virtue of such, probably feel some sort of kinship toward it, but also, because of that 400 years of past, and the realizing what’s likely to occur “far into the future,” as he says, he can’t answer that question in the affirmative. It’s a complicated relationship, basically, and for good reason.

There’s also a spiritual/religious aspect here, as I touched on earlier, in that, people ask for unconditional fealty to the “God” of America; the idea of America. To bend the knee (and that’s a metaphor since we know literally bending the knee is apparently objectionable) without any further discussion. That, whatever her faults, the idea itself is worthy of bending the knee. But I can see why some rightly would push back against such a notion.

Overall, this poem gives me a lot to engage with and think about, primarily the complicated relationship many people in the United States rightly have with, well, the “idea” of the United States, how she became what she is, and living under a vengeful God.

What do you make of this prose poem?

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