John Murillo
A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn

 

“And at times, didn’t the whole country try to break his skin?”

                                    —Tim Seibles

 

 

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.”

                                    —Terrance Hayes

 

 

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.”

                                    --Bob Kaufman

 

 

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.”

                                    —Etheridge Knight

 

 

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.”

                                    --Julian Randall

 

 

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.”

                                    --Indigo Moor

 

 

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...”

                                    —Amiri Baraka

 

 

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”

                                    --Paul Beatty

 

 

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.”

                                    --Danez Smith

 

 

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.”

                                    --Cornelius Eady

 

 

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 led.  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.”

                                    --Gil Scott-Heron

 

 

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 when—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.”

                                    --Robert Hayden

 

 

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.

 

 
Found In Volume 48, No. 01
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John Murillo
About the Author

John Murillo is the author of the poetry collections, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher, 2010), finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Pen Open Book Award, and Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (forthcoming from Four Way Books, 2020).  His honors include a Pushcart Prize, the J Howard and Barbara MJ Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Cave Canem Foundation, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.  His work has appeared in Plaughshares, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Best American Poetry 2017.  He is an assistant professor of English at Wesleyan University and also teaches in the low residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.