Originally published in 1942
PROOF OF AMERICA! A fire on the sea,
a tower of flame rising, flame falling out of the sky,
a wave of flame like a great sea-wave breaking
over this fighting island in its rain of wounds—
fighting until the flames grew tall, fighting while waves
broke and the enemy landed on each wave;
fighting as if they were the fist of the world
and they had a world to save.
Their backs to the immense cloud-melting sea
empty of help, and the enemy eyes were close,
and deadly close; they saw those fatal eyes
and a flag striped on the night in fire and stars.
The radio spoke its word: “The issue is in doubt,”
that word went flying out.
We built this island flashing in the sea,
younger than the children of these men.
In the cloud country, among the breathless calm
Wake was built for a link.
Eyes of the plane look down,
find a green footprint in the unmarked sea.
Eyes of the plane sight the lagoon at Wake.
There was another look on Christmas Week
when every fighting man looked in his neighbor’s eyes
and found more will to fight.
There are two looks in the world: the plane’s gaze down
on a scene of unrolled sea and open land
as it becomes a single map of space.
There is the close look of a fighting face
when the earth screams and fire falls from the air
and those fighting together look at each other’s lives
and wish, in that moment of proof, more life for the world
and stand their ground.
These are the brave of our time, who in
a new-found world
stand where the morning lights them and the war,
throw bravery into the sky while their planes hold,
read challenge on the sea, the word Surrender
shining on smoking water, and fire at the word
as long as their guns load.
Fight on the beaches in the bloody fighting
as long as their bodies last. And then they send their word
into the war that closes on the world.
They fought at this island for the air we breathe;
one war, one enemy seething at the beach.
Without their hills underfoot, not holding the fields
not fighting for land or their streets or the voice
of American evening
filling through treetops and into the lighted doorway,
not for the trumpets and the recruiting kiss
or the most loved caress, did they look down
at their flesh,
see in surprise the sudden wound opening.
Not flesh, not roses, not our Indian summer,
the sea-surf at our shores, the flashing cities,
the multiple Mississippi, the little secret lakes—
prairie in green winds of spring, smell of
our mountain snow,
the radio word of promise in our sky.
This battle is not finished. They shouted and went down
in the sky, in the flaming water, on the unknown sand.
They did not hear our millions as they fell
who follow the proof of the brave, that the world
is one world,
who set our lives and bodies at the sea
between the future and the enemy.
The world’s the only island, and our men
and women fight one war; it will be won again.
They were never cut off from us. We were cut off
This is our age’s discovery; sailing fathers
knew an impossible continent of promise
existed past danger and named in America.
We know the world is one; we name it Freedom.
O many-memoried America!
This island may be set among your stars;
planted in freedom, deep in a war for life,
that war will never rest among the dead,
the war belongs to the living of the world.
Shadows of our loss darken the land,
under their night new armies form and stand.
Impossible courage that finds impossible chance,
America planted in a sea of war,
free as our hope is free over all mountains
flying, and looking down; and our eyes looking
directly into the eyes of all the brave
under a night striped with our fire and stars
until the war’s first weapon is liberty,
and there is no slaveholder and no slave,
not even in the mind; but only the free.
Proof of America in a fighting age—
we see the face of the world, and its eyes are brave,
the men and women we stand with fight to save
our hope, our discovery, our unappeasable rage
against the enemy cutting us apart.
The future rises from the fighting heart
to fly over the world, riding where cities fall,
where the brave stand again, where voices call
to use to take their proof, proof of a world to win,
proof of America to lift the soul—
fighting to prove us whole.
(c) Muriel Rukeyser