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Ofermod

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“Now, tell me one difference,” my sister says,
“between Old English and New English.”

Well, Old English has a word for our kind
of people: ofermod, literally

“overmind,” or “overheart,”
or “overspirit,” often translated

“overproud.” When the warrior Byrhtnoth,
overfool, invited the Vikings

across the ford at Maldon to fight
his smaller troop at closer range,

his overpride proved deadlier
than the gold-hilted and file-hard

swords the poet gleefully describes — 
and aren’t we like that, high-strung

and ofermod as our daddy and granddaddies
and everybody else

in our stiff-necked mountain town,
always with something stupid to prove,

doing 80 all the way to the head of the holler,
weaving through the double lines;

splinting a door-slammed finger
with popsicle sticks and electrical tape;

not filling out the forms for food stamps
though we know we qualify.

Sister, I’ve seen you cuss rivals,
teachers, doctors, bill collectors,

lawyers, cousins, strangers
at the red light or the Walmart;

you start it, you finish it,
you everything-in-between-it,

whether it’s with your fists,
or a two-by-four, or a car door,

and it doesn’t matter that your foe’s
stronger, taller, better armed.

I don’t tell a soul when I’m down
to flour and tuna and a half-bag of beans,

so you’ve not seen me do without
just to do without, just for spite

at them who told us,
“It’s a sin to be beholden.”

If you’re Byrhtnoth
lying gutted on the ground,

speechifying at the troops he’s doomed,
then I’m the idiot campaigner

fighting beside his hacked-up lord
instead of turning tail,

insisting, “Mind must be the harder,
heart the keener, spirit the greater,

as our strength lessens.”
Now, don’t that sound familiar?

We’ve bought it all our lives
as it’s been sold by drunkards,

bruisers, goaders, soldiers,
braggers with a single code:

you might be undermined, girl,
but don’t you never be undermod.

This poem is from Scriptorium: Poems by Melissa Range (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Source: Poetry (September 2016)

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This poem originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Poetry magazine

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Ofermod

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