by Jessie Lynn McMains
All through the summer of 2020, from May to September, I returned again and again to Lynda Hull’s poem “Love Song during Riot with many Voices.” I thought of it when police murdered Breonna Taylor in her apartment, and the protests began in Louisville, demanding justice. I thought of
this man, this woman, the young eclipse
their naked bodies make — black, white, white,
black, the dying fall of light rendering bare walls
incarnadine, color of flesh and blood occluded
in voices rippling from the radio:
And when a cop murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the protests began, and spread across the country, across the world. Temporary autonomous zones springing up in Seattle. Protestors disappeared in Portland. The Third Precinct police station in Minneapolis, set ablaze. My cousin in Austin, riding his bike home late from work, corralled into a crowd of protestors and shot in the leg with a rubber bullet. His tibia, shattered. How we try to
forget the sharks and junkyards
within us. Traffic stalls to bricks shattering.
The bricks shattering windows, shuttering business, close and closer. In August, in Kenosha, Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer. Shot seven times. In the back. Kenosha was boarded up, and burned, and the protesters poured through the streets. No justice, no peace. And a white kid named Kyle Rittenhouse came up from Illinois with an AR-15, and killed two protestors.
This isn’t a lullaby a parent
might croon to children before sleep, but all of it
My friends who live right in the nexus of those burnt Kenosha nights. Curfew alerts on my phone, telling everyone in the area to get home before dark, stay inside, be safe. Be good. Some of my neighbors putting Black Lives Matter signs in their front yards; others hanging thin blue line flags. Me, making frantic phone calls to officials. Me, trying desperately to find my own words for all of it.
There’s no forgetting the riot
within, fingernails sparking to districts
rivering with flame.
My neighborhood sounded like a war zone, gunpowder charring the dusk, fireworks exploding all summer long because everyone was pandemic-pent-up and what else was there to do? And all the long summer, whenever I heard sirens I wondered if it was someone, sick with CoViD, being rushed to the hospital, or if it was another police-incited shooting, or if it was a riot.
What else could we do
but cling and whisper together as children after
the lullaby is done, but no, never as children, never
do they so implore, oh god, god, bend your dark visage
over this acetylene skyline
What else? The poem came back to me again two days ago, when I heard that a jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse on all charges. My social media feed exploded with people on all sides wishing violence on each other. The National Guard was deployed in Kenosha, and I worried, again, for my friends. I wanted to scream and weep and to share this poem with everyone because. Because it does what Lynda Hull does so well—it is a burning lyric, the lines rivering down the page like gasoline. It brings a specific place and time alive so vividly, better than any newsreel or newspaper article. After all, there is
No journalist for these aisles of light
the cathedral spots cast through teargas
Like all Lynda Hull’s poems, it shows the real, beautiful, burning, messy, drunk in love humanity in and around the sorrow and pain.
And then I began thinking of how many other poems there are about riots, and protest, and violence, and also the real lives of humans struggling to love and thrive despite the systems that would break them. And so many of them are by Black and Indigenous writers, and other writers of color, and I wanted to share some of those—because it seems to me that centering only white voices is something we’ve been doing for far too long. So I gathered some of my favorites, and I’m putting them here.
Kimberly Blaeser is the former Wisconsin Poet Laureate, and a member of the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. I am offering you an excerpt from her poem “Unlawful Assembly.” It is a short poem which ripples outward, a small room exploding with flowers and light:
Don’t hurry to safety.
Each hour your flowered room grows smaller.
Everywhere at the periphery of vision
windows shatter into triangles
of mosaic light.
“Tonight, in Oakland,” Danez Smith writes:
I did not come here to sing a blues.
Lately, I open my mouth
& out comes marigolds, yellow plums.
I came to make the sky a garden.
Oakland is one of my former home/towns, and I have never known another place where the people are so good at growing gardens from the drought-blasted earth, at turning grief to prayer-song and protests to dance parties, at saying:
I made it a whole day, still, no rain
still, I am without exit wound
Imagine them in black, the morning heat losing within this day that floats.
That’s the first sentence of Claudia Rankine’s prose poem “Coherence in Consequence.” It speaks of two people, two souls, meeting, and creating something from their meeting. It does not specify who these people are, or what it is they create, but I think it could be any two people who meet, open-handed, open-hearted. It is the final line, though, which gets to me the most. I wish I could graffito it on the boarded-up buildings of every city:
Were we ever to arrive at knowing the other as the same pulsing compassion would break the most orthodox heart.
Hearts breaking, open, pulsing, that’s Aracelis Girmay’s “You Are Who I Love.” It is a long poem with lines of varying length—some only a few words, some whole paragraphs. It is a list, a litany, a witnessing, of everyone the poet-speaker loves:
You dancing in the kitchen, on the sidewalk, in the subway waiting for the train because Stevie Wonder, Héctor Lavoe, La Lupe
You are who I love, writing letters, calling the senators, you who, with the seconds of your body (with your time here), arrive on buses, on trains, in cars, by foot to stand in the January streets against the cool and brutal offices, saying: YOUR CRUELTY DOES NOT SPEAK FOR ME
You who replanted the trees, listening to the work of squirrels and birds, you are who I love
You are who I love, you who beat and did not beat the odds, you who knows that any good thing you have is the result of someone else’s sacrifice, work, you who fights for reparations
You are who I love, you who stands at the courthouse with the sign that reads NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE
You are who I love, singing Leonard Cohen to the snow, you with glitter on your face, wearing a kilt and violet lipstick
And “A Small Needful Fact,” by Ross Gay, which I have to give to you in its entirety:
A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
This, this is an antidote to the way the media spins things. To the way Black men and boys who are murdered are demonized—everyone always making sure to mention that they smoked weed, or had trouble in school, or once got caught shoplifting. And the way white boys and men who murder are lionized—everyone saying how much they loved their grandmother, or were soft-spoken and seemingly kind, or just wanted to help.
Eric Garner planted flowers and Hanif Abdurraqib wrote a series of poems titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This.” In one of them—
you might tell me something
about the dandelion & how it is not a flower itself
but a plant made up of several small flowers at its crown
& lord knows I have been called by what I look like
more than I have been called by what I actually am
Writing about this poem, Hanif said: “I was at a reading…and the poet (who was black) was reading gorgeous poems, which had some consistent and exciting flower imagery. A woman (who was white) behind me—who thought she was whispering to her neighbor—said ‘How can black people write about flowers at a time like this?’ I thought it was so absurd in a way that didn’t make me angry but made me curious. What is the black poet to be writing about ‘at a time like this’ if not to dissect the attractiveness of a flower—that which can arrive beautiful and then slowly die right before our eyes?”
How can anyone write poems about the trees when the woods are full of policemen? Because we need to see the flowers sprouting from the rubble, to witness who and what we love. So I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a poem full of gratitude and joy, by Fatimah Asghar:
I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What We’ve Done to the Earth
so I count my hopes: the bumblebees
are making a comeback, one snug tight
in a purple flower I passed to get to you;
your favorite color is purple but Prince’s
is orange & we both find this hard to believe;
today the park is green, we take grass for granted
Tonight, in Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, we take nothing for granted. Tonight in Chicago, Minneapolis, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, we are dancing to Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis. We are writing flowers, planting poems. We are singing terror, singing pity. Tonight, in the torched, divided cities, we are witnesses to each other’s tenderness, which, this moment, is fury, is rage, which, this moment, is another way of saying: You are who I love You are who I love You and you and you are who.
- Since “Love Song during Riot with Many Voices” is not available to read online, I made a video of myself reading it.
- The italicized portions of the final paragraph come from three different poems. Singing terror, singing pity is from “Love Song during Riot with Many Voices.” The torched, divided cities is from a different Lynda Hull poem, “Chiffon.” Witnesses to each other’s tenderness…You and you and you are who is from Aracelis Girmay’s “You Are Who I Love.”
- There are two other poems I nearly included in this piece, which ultimately didn’t quite fit, but I still want to share them: “my dad asks, “how come black folk can’t just write about flowers?”” by Aziza Barnes, and “I live in Detroit” by Francine J. Harris.