Vanderbilt Magazine

‘The 400-Meter Heat’: A poem by Destiny O. Birdsong

Getty Images: Brilly/Calvin Dexter

I’m most American when I reach for more ketchup
as Shaunae Miller dives across the finish.

I’m blackest when Allyson Felix collapses on the track,
knees up, concealing her last name

and the letters USA blistering her chest.
I’m saddest whenever two black women are competing

because I never know who to root for,
and I’m arrogant enough to believe my split loyalty

fails them (which makes me more American again).
This is how it feels to be a problem:

hoping that, when a country’s cameras are trained
on your back, and you offer the fruited plain

of your body, it’s somehow enough to quench
the parched land where all the mothers keep dying,

each ghost a breath-song trilling in your blood,
and, perhaps, one day, grand mal convulsions—

petechiae like pomegranate seeds jeweling your face.
Every race is a transubstantiation of flesh,

just not to gold, or bronze, or mythical filigree,
but to the fleeting, nameless moment when a foot

finds the chalk line drawn by someone else.
Maybe #magic, or a single, unfortunate tremor

that means nothing until you’re dead. Who knows what metals
the gods use to forge victory, which is neither sympathy

nor love, nor more sacred than the foot-fall—
its indiscernible blip magnified for millions

of eyes that only blink when we’re winning—
which you too probably missed, although later,

in the dashcam footage, you’ll swear to me you saw it.

Destiny O. Birdsong, MA’07, MFA’09, PhD’12, is a Louisiana-born poet, fiction writer and essayist who lives and works in Nashville. This poem is from her debut collection of poems, Negotiations, published this fall by Tin House Books. Read more about her at