“On the Pulse of Morning” consists of 107 lines, grouped into thirteen stanzas of unequal length. Over the course of these thirteen stanzas, the poem’s focus shifts from the past to the future. More specifically, the poem shifts from an analysis of historical traumas to the anticipation of a better future. This overall shift is most clearly modeled by the poem’s main speaker, who opens and closes the poem. The speaker begins the poem with a stanza that considers the deep history of the planet and the extinction events that wiped untold numbers of creatures out of existence. The only thing that remains from these mass-trauma events are fossils. All traces of fear and suffering have been erased from the material record. Even so, the speaker seems to imply, we can still speculate that these events caused massive suffering. Such suffering deeply influenced, and continues to influence, life as we know it on this planet. Later, at the close of the poem, the main speaker returns with several stanzas that directly address us readers. In these stanzas, the speaker instructs us to lift our eyes to the horizon and await the breaking of a new dawn, which beckons with luminous possibility.

Each of the poem’s other speakers makes a similar shift from past to future. After the main speaker’s opening stanza, three nonhuman voices take over the poem. These new speakers are the Rock, the River, and the Tree. Each of these entities addresses a troubling aspect of human history, then invites us readers to improve in the future. The Rock speaks first and describes how, since they first evolved, humans have long lived in a “bruising darkness” (line 16), with their “mouths spilling words / Armed for slaughter” (lines 19–20). The River speaks next, addressing more recent histories of human war and greed. The Tree then gets even more detailed about the violence of U.S. history, speaking specifically about the genocide of Indigenous nations as well as the enslavement of African peoples. Each of these nonhuman entities closes their speech with invitations for us readers to improve in the future. The Rock instructs us to leave the shadow of our ignorance. The River calls on us to relinquish greed and give peace a chance. Finally, the Tree invites us to come together as one people and “root” ourselves in the soil, an act that would ensure future growth and mutual flourishing.