God knows, we’ve fought enough these past few years — but for one night, we make a truce. A poem.
As darkness settles over the land,
we gather above the wide river —
some thousands of us Americans
come for Fourth of July fireworks.
Our long shadows linger in the last
light, entangling us with one another,
and perhaps with the shadows of armies
once encamped here, waiting for war.
God knows, we’ve fought enough
these past few years — it’s been us
versus you, we the red & we the blue;
and even we who would wave
the white flag of truces
have shed our share of blood
and borne our share of bruises.
But for now we sheath our phones,
unfurling billowing blankets instead:
a pop-up patchwork quilt scavenged
from leftover scraps of our common-
weal. We are happy to move a little
to the right, or a little to the left,
making room so our neighbors can see
unimpeded by our big heads. Milk-sweet
babies drowse in our laps and children
chase by, barefoot, haloed by glow-
sticks; a few of the teens flirt, subtle as
the fireflies floating off in the woods.
The rest of us sit, happy enough to be
here, together, waiting for the first
notes of our common song of praise,
waiting for that first sharp spark
to rekindle our ancestral fire.
And then, as the gray sky fades,
and darkness effects its black
lie of solitude and separation
— finally, a flash of fire
as the hammer strikes
the dome of the black night,
and it sparks and cracks,
bright blossoms blooming,
flowering, then falling
and fading, breaking
forth again and again;
each a miracle, each a sign
thrown wide across the sky:
our swords beaten into ploughshares,
our bombs bent to beauty.
And every last one of us
is wide-eyed with wonder,
our faces painted with light —
like a stained-glass window,
like a blessing, like a dream.
At the end, we rise to our feet
and offer an ovation of gladness —
not so much for the show, I think,
but for finally having caught,
the hand of our neighbor;
the happiness we’ve been pursuing
since the very beginning.
Fourth of July fireworks may be the only American ritual…
…in which Americans of every stripe gather in one place to celebrate the nation — and more to the point, its people. The simplicity of the ritual is part of its appeal; maybe there is music beforehand, or maybe not; either way, you and your neighbors find a place on the grass as evening falls, and maybe you make small talk while you wait for the sun to go down, and the show to begin.
I began this poem a few years ago (2017, maybe?) after attending our local fireworks show. As the last lights faded and fell out of the sky, the crowd rose to its feet and clapped and whistled and cheered, and it gave me chills, because I realized — it’s not the light display they’re cheering, not really; it’s the idea of America, embodied by the gathered crowd. If we were only coming together for the light display — well, we could watch from our cars, or on a big-screen television; but we come together in part for the communal experience.
(Although come to think of it, our local AM radio station for years broadcast a live play-by-play of the fireworks show.)
After letting the poem lie fallow for a while, I picked it up again this past summer. Do I need to spell out why? With the nation as divided as it is, I’m hanging on to the memory of this simple ritual: all of us Americans gathered together, the left and the right, to spend a warm summer evening watching “the bombs bursting in air.”