01 Jun Elegy
My country’s cities are burning again. Armed white men again in blue uniforms wouldn’t again let an unarmed ununiformed again black man breathe again. Meanwhile, out in the Great Plains and Bread Basket other people are differently dying, the virus growing inside their lungs while meat packers sweaty with fever have to show up for work so their families won’t starve, while farmers lie coughing and gasping for lack of equipment to keep them alive. Some of the people in small towns and on farms fell for the lie that all this was a hoax, the fault of dark people and people in cities; now they also can’t breathe.
The blows come so fast and so heavy you can’t stagger up from the last one before the new punch knocks you breathless again. Private enterprise launches itself into space, national economies collapse—hey, that’s the least of it. Heat waves melt South Asia, sizzle Europe; wildfires blister the western US and Australia; South America thirsts through a scarce-water emergency; Africa’s air stinks as its noons turn to night under record repeated dense swarms of locusts. A cyclone slams India’s Kolkata, pounding rains burst two dams in the US Midwest, forecasts warn that Atlantic hurricanes this season will be very severe. During the lockdown, we praised drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions: now we know the decline hasn’t come close to shaking loose the thick blanket of gases choking the Earth. Cases of asthma and emphysema are rising. It’s harder to breathe. Seawater levels swell; storm surges bust through embankments, drowning paddies, flooding fields. Generations of farmers and fisherfolk on six continents had been migrating to cities for work, but the lockdown stopped that.
This is old news, isn’t it? Been predicted for decades, for even a century or two. But the science was ignored or dismissed and the scientists laughed at for being dystopian Cassandras. The pandemic, which globally (so far) has killed nearly a half million people was spawned by a feverish planet whose catastrophic warming threatens millions more. Not to speak of the species that are being driven extinct. Death is one thing. An end to birth is something else.
What had not been predicted? Acceleration. Sudden: a corner turned, words once spoken that can’t be unsaid, the slip then slide then shattering of what was supposed to last till the end of the century at least until we could think up creative solutions. But how can you think of anything at this velocity and when you can’t breathe?
Nor was there any way anyone could have prepared for the shock of the magnitude. So much, my god too much, too much on all fronts enough of this avalanche that never pauses not for a second so you could catch a breath, this lava flow gathering mass as it gains speed, this blizzard of news bleak as the thousands of lies that buzz from the mouth of a creature who scuttles demented nightlong on White House red carpets of power. So many lies, too many to laugh at, respond to, keep track of, dismiss. Volume’s the secret, the sheer scale is so hard to believe, a glut that we’re flailing in, drowning in till we almost can’t tell anymore where we end and it starts: the spew of rotting hope that smothers the scream, chokes the cry in the throat, muzzles the curse, snuffs out the memories of a democracy. Glut was already thought normal, it’s what some people long to return to. Land of plenty greed wanna wanna wanna discount opportunity dis-mis-information more more more clicks ratings followers friends jumbo denial all-you-can-eat hate giant sale of fear overstock of stupidity gimme everything-must-go gimme gimme king-size lies. Too many choices plus dwindling choice. An abundance of lack. Lack of facts, clarity, oxygen, time.
More cities are burning now. Black citizens rejecting slaughter, black bodies being shot and clubbed for the sin of surviving enslavement, black souls and lungs being suffocated, dying again and again pleading Please I can’t breathe. Eric Garner six years ago in New York: “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd, six days ago, in Minneapolis. The chokehold, the same last words. So many times, so many men, such definitions of manhood at stake, so much death. The women aren’t spared, only less noticed because they’re just female and because death hunts them down where they sit, quiet, at home, threatening no one by showing the gall to walk down their own city street. Alberta Spruill, Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis, Shelley Frey, Kayla Moore, Kyam Livingstone, Miriam Carrie, Michele Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson—yes, say their names. As if saying their names could stun them alive. But saying their names makes them real again, makes them not vanish, at least for a moment. Brionna Taylor, just this past March: a young, lovely, skilled EMT after another hard day risking her life picking up COVID-19 patients, was asleep at night with her boyfriend in her own bedroom when a plain-clothed-police assault through the door sent eight bullets through her small body. How many more names, too many, such a long list that the precious unique details of each individual and irreplaceable life are lost, just another name blurred by the numbers, mislaid in the effort to recall who when how was she murdered how where why was he killed when does this end how do we make it stop everyone’s human makes mistakes sure but making the same mistake over and over that’s no mistake how refuse to swallow it vomit it up it’s taking too long to learn how.
I don’t show my despair in this space. This space is to comfort, inform, to be useful. I write here in prose. Prose is the language of fact, law, reporting, the grocery list, letter, speech, bedside-stand note jotted after that nightmare you really don’t want to remember but best not forget. Poetry is the language of truth. Poetry, a nuclear reactor, is built strong enough to contain the energy of desolation, grasp the power of that energy, channel it, let it churn. Prose is the language of vengeance. Prose signs executive orders, throws press briefings and bricks through store windows. Prose is brilliant at reasoning, though, at rallying, at forging on. Poetry does all that too, with a snap of its fingers—but also brings a baked casserole to the home of the dead woman’s mother, leaves a rose on the sidewalk at the spot where the dead man was slain. Prose incites rage, invokes peace, forms committees, vows change, passes laws, sometimes even enforces a few. Poetry IDs the body. Poetry closes the eyelids and zips the bag up over the face.
Poetry is where I’m free to bleed. Prose is the medium here then, since my grief changes nothing. The planet has little time left, I have still less, my skin is still white, and my tools are still only these words. But tomorrow the mourning demands that we somehow stand up and arrayed in our finest despair stagger forward, one step, then another, head high, acting invincible, inch by inch doing whatever we can until our part is over.
Forgive me for having revealed a glimpse of this desolate hour—although who dares to say you or I have no right to despair?
Prose has my grateful respect for releasing these words from a chokehold, letting them breathe, letting me claim them, letting me let them let go and acknowledge their passing.
Poetry sits by the coffin and weeps.