Saturday, June 25, 2016

American sentences memorialize those killed by guns

I’ve been a spotty blogger since June 12, the date of the Pulse nightclub shooting. I’m sure I’m not alone in a tendency after a tragedy to think of normal activities as—I don’t know. Profane?

Of course, I tend to write about writing and creativity, an activity and an attitude that I find essential. There’s nothing trivial about art. In fact, it honors those killed by senseless violence to adopt a contemplative attitude and to think about essential subjects. Maybe this isn’t the time for me to write about what makes a good rejection slip, but there is no better time to talk about meaning-making.

When the tragedy happened, I was almost halfway through a Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, writing and posting a poem each day as a benefit for a wonderful small press. I adopted a (seemingly) lighthearted project, the basis of my current book manuscript—poems about classic TV shows, like Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, and more.

After the Pulse shooting, Hogan’s Heroes seemed too vapid a subject to deal with. (There’s deep irony there, since the show takes place in Nazi Germany, amid horrors that are not alluded to.) I felt stymied as a poet, and I dropped the ball with the Tupelo project. Although I still tried to write every day, I have a bunch of starts of Beverly Hillbillies poems that seem to have nowhere to go. I’ll return to these eventually, because I actually do believe TV is an obsession worth pursuing.

On the day of the shooting, I wrote a twelve-section poem called “American Morning” in a form Allen Ginsberg created called the American sentence. Each section is an American sentence—seventeen syllables (like a haiku) and a single complete sentence. “American Morning” tries to approach the Pulse shooting in something like real time. It wasn’t a poem for sharing as much as it was a tool for contemplation—a way of coming to grips with the loss of so many, and of finding a place for the images of panic and grief my TV was showing me.

Since that day, I’ve maintained a daily contemplative practice that memorializes victims of gun violence. Upon waking, I look for news stories about all of the people killed by a bullet the day before. It’s a grim Google search, usually involving the phrase “shot dead” or “shot and killed.” There has not been a morning in those thirteen days that I haven’t had my pick of several U.S. gun deaths.

Today’s American sentence concerns a tragic event in Katy, Texas, where a mother, enmeshed in marital problems with her husband, shot her two daughters, ages 22 and 17. The hard thing about these meditations is also the hard thing about poetry. I don’t get to finger-wag and pontificate—doing so does not make a poem. Instead, I have to close my eyes and really immerse myself in a sense of the pain of that place at that moment. This morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the terrible, gut-wrenching irony of removing one’s own daughters from the earth, after the pain and agonizing effort of birthing them and raising them in the world. Here’s the poem:

She honeycombed with bullets those bodies
she once caressed with powder.

“Mother, 2 daughters killed in Ft. Bend triple shooting identified,” KRPCHouston, June 25, 2016

For poetry to work, and for meditation to work, it’s first necessary to pinpoint the love and to feel connection. I’m generalizing, of course—this is just what’s necessary for me to function. Even an angry poem is centered in love for someone who has been hurt. I do best with my American sentences if I try to exercise lovingkindness for all. I frequently fall short. Sometimes my frustration shows, as with this sentence about an incident where a man, merely being robbed, pulled his own gun to defend himself and ended up dead:

Dead man managed to preserve safety of wallet; unknown who shot first.

“Man shot, killed trying to defend himself from robber,” 11Alive Atlanta, June 21, 2016

This feels like the weakest of my American sentences so far, and I know the reason: it judges; it does not love.

It was easy—and very nearly overwhelming—to feel love for the youngest victim I wrote about, a four-year-old girl who accidentally shot herself in he eye while peering down the barrel of an unattended pistol.

From the nature of the injury, it appears she just wanted
to look down that dark hole.


In my meditation, I was the little girl, turning that gun in her hands, and I was the mother, encountering the fear and confusion of a younger daughter bent over her dying sister. I was even the medical personnel, frantically summoned to the scene from a clinic near the home, and I was the officers who will live with that image forever. Even writing about it now, it’s impossible to process all that I’m feeling.

And that’s the point of my American sentences project. I have made the personal decision to no longer turn my shoulder on my country’s epidemic of violent death at the end of a barrel. On Dec. 14, 2012, the Newtown shooting took place at an elementary school, leaving twenty precious children and six selfless teachers dead. I heard about it—and I stopped listening. I couldn’t watch the news of this. Anything I’ve learned about Newtown has been gleaned peripherally. I have never looked at footage or pictures of that day, because I knew I couldn’t stand immersing myself in the fear of those innocents. What I have picked up—children hiding in cabinets, teachers offering up the soft shields of their bodies as a last resort—is all way more than I can bear. I’ve thought of my own son at school, going through drills that had him hide from a shooter, and I’ve known that no cupboard would protect my child—and that he would never be able to hold his tongue and be silent. It’s impossible to contemplate, and simultaneously, it’s crucial to contemplate.

I invite all writers to join me in remembering those we have lost, as well as those we continue to lose each new day. It’s a harrowing and necessary responsibility, and one we as a culture can no longer look away from.

I invite you to follow my American sentences project on Twitter, @AmrcnSentences.

1 comment:

  1. "She honeycombed with bullets those bodies
    she once caressed with powder."

    How painfully, poetically you humanizing news. The poor daughters (and their mother) now immortalized by you.

    Thank you for your work, the pain you endure to take us to the level of understanding, Karen.