“And at times, didn’t the whole country try to break his skin?”
You strike your one good match to watch its bloom
and jook, a swan song just before a night
wind comes to snuff it. That’s the kind of day
it’s been. Your Black & Mild, now, useless as
a prayer pressed between your lips. God damn
the wind. And everything it brings. You hit
the corner store to cop a light, and spy
the trouble rising in the cashier’s eyes.
TV reports some whack job shot two cops
then popped himself, here, in the borough, just
one mile away. You’ve heard this one before.
In which there’s blood. In which a black man snaps.
In which things burn. You buy your matches. Christ
is watching from the wall art, swathed in fire.
“This country is mine as much as an orphan’s house is his.”
To breathe it in, this boulevard perfume
of beauty shops and roti shacks, to take
in all its funk, calypso, reggaeton,
and soul, to watch school kids and elders go
about their days, their living, is, if not
to fall in love, at least to wonder why
some want us dead. Again this week, they killed
another child who looked like me. A child
we’ll march about, who’ll grace our placards, say,
then be forgotten like a trampled pamphlet. What
I want, I’m not supposed to. Payback. Woe
and plenty trouble for the gunman’s clan.
I’m not suppose to. But I want a brick,
a window. One good match, to watch it bloom.
“America, I forgive you… I forgive you eating black children, I know your hunger.”
You dream of stockpiles—bottles filled with gas
and wicks stripped from a dead cop’s slacks—a row
of paddy wagons parked, a pitcher’s arm.
You dream of roses, time-lapse blossoms from
the breasts of sheriffs, singing Calico
and casings’ rain. You dream of scattered stars,
dream panthers at the precinct, dream a black-
out, planned and put to use. You dream your crew
a getaway van, engine running. Or,
no thought to run at all. You dream a flare
sent up too late against the sky, the coup
come hard and fast. You dream of pistol smoke
and bacon, folded flags—and why feel shame?
Is it the dream? Or that it’s only dream?
“& still when I sing this awful tale, there is more than a dead black man at the center.”
—Reginald Dwayne Betts
You change the channel, and it’s him again.
Or not him. Him, but younger. Him, but old.
Or him with skullcap. Kufi. Hoodied down.
It’s him at fifteen. Him at forty. Bald,
or dreadlocked. Fat, or chiseled. Six foot three,
or three foot six. Coal black or Ralph Bunche bright.
Again, it’s him. Again, he reached. Today,
behind his back, his waist, beneath the seat,
his socks, to pull an Uzi, morning star,
or Molotov. They said don’t move, they said
get down, they said to walk back toward their car.
He, so to speak, got down… Three to the head,
six to the heart. A mother kneels and prays—
Not peace, but pipe bombs, hands to light the fuse.
“Fuck the whole muthafucking thing.”
A black man, dancing for the nightly news,
grins wide and white, all thirty-two aglow
and glad to be invited. Makes a show
of laying out, of laundry airing. Throws
the burden back on boys, their baggy wear
and boisterous voices. Tells good folk at home
how streets run bloody, riffraff take to crime
like mice to mayhem, and how lawmen, more
than ever, need us all to back them. Fuck
this chump, the channel, and the check they cut
to get him. Fuck the nodding blonde, the fat
man hosting. Fuck the story. Fuck the quick
acquittals. Fuck the crowds and camera van.
You change the channel. Fuck, it’s him again.
“I enter this story by the same door each time.”
At Normandy and Florence, brick in hand,
one afternoon in ‘92, with half
the city razed and turned against itself,
a young boy beat a man to meat, and signed,
thereby, the Ledger of the Damned. Big Book
of Bad Decisions. Black Boy’s Almanac
of Shit You Can’t Take Back. We watched, in shock.
The fury, sure. But more so that it took
this long to set it. All these matchstick years…
He beat him with a brick, then danced a jig
around his almost-carcass. Cameras caught
him live and ran that loop for weeks, all night,
all day, to prove us all, I think, one thug,
one black beast prancing on the nightly news.
“And when it comes to those hard deeds done by righteous people and martyrs,
isn’t it about time for that to be you?”
--Gary Copeland Lilley
Not Huey on his high back wicker throne,
beret cocked cooler than an Oaktown pimp.
Or young Guevara marching into camp,
all swagger, mane, and slung M-1. But one
less suited, you could say, for picture books
and posters, slouching on a northbound Bolt,
caressing steel and posting plans to shoot.
He means, for once, to be of use. Small axe
to massive branches, tree where hangs the noose.
He says he’s “putting wings on pigs today,”
wants two for each of us they’ve blown away.
Wants gun salutes and caskets. Dirges, tears,
and wreaths. Wants widows on the witness stand,
or near the riot’s flashpoint, brick in hand.
“I itch for my turn.”
Like Malcolm at the window, rifle raised
and ready for whatever—classic black
and white we pinned above our dorm room desks—
we knew a storm brewed, spinning weathervanes
and hustling flocks from sky to sky. We dozed,
most nights, nose deep in paperback
prognoses. Wretched and Black Skin, White Masks,
our books of revelation. Clarions
to would-be warriors, if only we
might rise up from our armchairs, lecture halls,
or blunt smoke cyphers. Talking all that gun
and glory, not a Nat among us. Free
to wax heroic. Deep. As bullet holes
through Panther posters, Huey’s shattered throne.
“Poems are bullshit unless they are teeth...”
It ain’t enough to rabble rouse. To run
off at the mouth. To speechify and sing.
Just ain’t enough to preach it, Poet, kin
to kin, pulpit to choir, as if song
were anything like Panther work. It ain’t.
This morning when the poets took the park
to poet at each other, rage and rant,
the goon squad watched and smiled, watched us shake
our fists and fret. No doubt amused. As when
a mastiff meets a yapping lapdog, or
the way a king might watch a circus clown
produce a pistol from a passing car.
Our wrath the flag that reads kaboom! Our art,
a Malcolm poster rolled up, raised to swat.
“every once in a while
i see the winged spirits of niggas past raise out the rubble”
Could be he meant to set the world right.
One bullet at a time. One well-placed slug,
one dancing shell case at a time. One hot
projectile pushing through, one body bag
zipped shut and shipped to cold store, at a time.
Could be he meant to make us proud, to fill
Nat Turner’s shoes. Could be he meant to aim
at each acquittal, scot free cop, each trigger pull
or chokehold left unchecked, and blast daylight
straight through. Could be he meant, for once, to do.
We chat. We chant. We theorize and write.
We clasp our hands, spark frankincense, and pray.
Our gods, though, have no ears. And yet, his gun
sang loud. Enough to make them all lean in.
“Paradise is a world where everything is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.”
A pipebomb hurled through a wig shop’s glass—
nine melting mannequins, nine crowns of flame.
Hair singe miasma, black smoke braided. Scream
of squad cars blocks away. Burnt out Caprice
and overturned Toyota. Strip mall stripped.
And gutted. Gift shop, pet shop, liquor store,
old stationery wholesale. Home décor,
cheap dinnerware. An old man sprinting, draped
in handbags, loaded down with wedding gowns.
Three Bloods and two Crips tying, end-to-end,
one red, one blue, bandana. Freebase fiend
with grocery bags, new kicks, and name brand jeans.
Spilled jug of milk against the curb, black cat
bent low to lap it. This, your world, burnt bright.
“I love the world, but my heart’s been cheated.”
He thought a prayer and a pistol grip
enough to get it done. Enough to get
him free. Get free or, dying, try. To stop
the bleeding. Blood on leaves, blood at the root.
I didn’t root, exactly, when I heard
word spread. Word that he crept up, panther like,
and let loose lead. A lot. Before he fled
the spot, then somewhere underground, let kick
his cannon one last time. “One Time,” our name
for cops back at the crib. It had to do,
I think, with chance. Or lack of. Chickens come
to roost? Perhaps. I didn’t root. Per se.
But almost cracked a smile that day. The news
like wind chimes on the breeze. Or shattered glass.
“We beg your pardon, America. We beg your pardon, once again.”
To preach forgiveness in a burning church.
To nevermind the noose. To nurse one cheek
then turn the next. To run and fetch the switch.
To switch up, weary of it all. Then cock
the hammer back and let it fall… But they
were men, you say, with children. And so close
to Christmas. But their wives, you say. Today
so close to Christmas… Memory as noose,
and history as burning church, who’d come
across the two cops parked and not think, Go
time? One time for Tamir time? Not think Fire
this time? To say as much is savage. Blame
the times, and what they’ve made of us. We know
now, which, and where—the pistol or the prayer.
“…like sparklers tracing an old alphabet in the night sky”
--Amaud Jamaul Johnson
It’s natural, no, to put your faith in fire?
The way it makes new all it touches. How
a city, let’s say, might become, by way
of time and riot, pure. In ’92,
we thought to gather ashes where before
loomed all that meant to kill us. Rubble now
and lovely. Worked into, as if from clay,
some sort of monument. To what? No clue.
Scorched earth, and then…? Suppose a man sets out,
with gun and half a plan, to be of use.
To hunt police. Insane, we’d say. Not long
for life. In this, we’d miss the point. A lit
match put to gas-soaked rag, the bottle flung,
may die, but dying, leaves a burning house.
“Afro angels, black saints, balanced upon the switchblades of that air and sang.”
But that was when you still believed in fire,
the gospel of the purge, the burning house.
You used to think a rifle and a prayer,
a pipebomb hurled through a shopkeep’s glass,
enough, at last, to set the world right.
Enough, at least, to galvanize some kin.
Think Malcolm at the window, set to shoot,
or Huey on his high-back wicker throne.
Think Normandy and Florence, brick in hand,
a Black man dancing for the camera crews.
You change the channel, there he is again,
and begging: Find some bottles, fill with gas.
Begs breathe in deep the Molotov’s perfume.
Says strike your one good match, then watch it bloom.
A Note on the Poem:
“A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn”: The title is a nod to Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” The poem itself was written in part as a reflection on police-community relations since the 1992 uprisings, and partly as a response to the killing of two NYPD officers and subsequent suicide of twenty-eight year old Ishmael Brinsley. On December 20, 2014, Brinsley shot and killed Brooklyn officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, before fleeing the scene and ultimately shooting himself dead on a subway platform. Brinsley also shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend before boarding a bus that morning from Baltimore to New York City. His attack on the officers was reportedly motivated by the rash of police killings of unarmed Black people nationwide. Coincidentally, while Brinsley was carrying out his attack, poets were gathered in New York’s Washington Square Park to read poems in protest of said killings.