March 2023

Bullet Points

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce


"I will not shoot myself/In the head, and I will not shoot myself/In the back…." —Jericho Brown, "Bullet Points"

The recent murder in Memphis of Tyre Nichols by five policemen has triggered a great deal of outrage (along with the usual excuse making) among people of all races. It's nothing new, of course, this violence inflicted on a Black male body—only mass shootings seem to be more regular— but perhaps the particular brutality of this incident has made it even more horrifying than other similar occurrences. One is left feeling a helpless rage, the sense that nothing will change. The best we can do, I believe is not to give into despair or cynicism but to raise our own voices and amplify the voices of those most at risk. Hence this small selection of poems by Black poets dealing with racial violence and its emotional as well as physical effects.

Further along in "Bullet Points," Jericho Brown states,

"When I kill me, I will

Do it the same way most Americans do, 

I promise you: cigarette smoke

Or a piece of meat on which I choke

Or so broke I freeze 

In one of these winters we keep

Calling worst. I promise if you hear

Of me dead anywhere near

A cop, then that cop killed me. He took 

Me from us and left my body, which is, 

No matter what we've been taught, 

Greater than the settlement

A city can pay a mother to stop crying,

And more beautiful than the new bullet

Fished from the folds of my brain." (1)

The immediate recipient of violence is not the only one damaged, as Ross Gay reminds us in his poem "A Small, Needful Fact," about Eric Garner, choked to death by New York City cops:

"Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, …" cultivating plants that will "continue/to do what plants do…//like making it easier/for us to breathe." (2)

From another angle, Harryette Mullen in "Elliptical," depicts the incoherence and inanity of the rationales and justifications offered by officials and commentators for the ceaseless repetition of sanctioned brutality:

"They just can't seem to . . . They should try harder to . . . They ought to be more . . . We all wish they weren't so . . . They never . . . They always . . .//Nevertheless their behavior strikes us as . . . Our interactions unfortunately have been . . ."  (3)

Terrence Hayes imagines himself as a potential victim:

"Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous


Almost everywhere in this country every day.

Probably someone is prey in all of our encounters."

"American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin" (4)

The emotional toll on even those of us far removed from the scenes of violence yet still strongly affected is examined by Morgan Parker in "If You Are Over Staying Woke":

"Water/the plants. Drink/plenty of water./Don't hear/the news. Get/bored…./Keep/a song mind/Don't smile/Don't wilt/funeral/funeral" (5)

Of course, the spate of incidents we've seen over the last few years is nothing new, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of American history knows. What's different today is that the proliferation of smartphone cameras and instant posting to social media, along with the 24-hour news cycle, mean they can no longer stay hidden, nor can we pretend they all take place somewhere far away. Dudley Randall in a poem from 1968, recalls the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church by a racist terrorist. The poem relates the horrible irony of a Black mother's refusal to allow her daughter to attend a freedom rally, instead sending her to church for Sunday school and singing:

"For when she heard the explosion,

Her eyes grew wet and wild.

She raced through the streets of Birmingham

Calling for her child.//

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,

Then lifted out a shoe.

'O, here's the shoe my baby wore,

But, baby, where are you?'" (6)

Farther back in time, the great Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay sounds notes of defiance and hope:

"If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot….

Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

("If We Must Die" (8)

Of course, it is not only Black poets who speak out in protest. D.C. based poet Joseph Ross writes poems dedicated to all forms of social justice. Here, he mourns Trayvon Martin:

"A mother should

never have to

ask for the body

of her son

more than once….

Here are jump shots
that will not

arc toward

("Trayvon Martin: Requiem") (9)

Finally, a poem from the remarkable and sadly little-known Black poet, Henry Dumas—himself murdered at the age of 33 by NYC transit police. While not writing explicitly about violence and brutality, Dumas invokes African spirits and holy rites as a way to defy racism and offer hope for resistance and triumph:

"No power can stay the mojo

when the obi is purple

and the vodu is green

and Shango is whispering,

Bathe me in blood.

I am not clean."

("Rite") (10)

I found many of these poems appended to a very powerful essay by Major Jackson in Poetry Magazine. It can be found here, along with many fine poems about social justice by poets of all races.



(1)   https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/152728/bullet-points

(2)   https://poets.org/poem/small-needful-fact

(3)   https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51632/elliptical

(4)   https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/143916/american-sonnet-for-my-past-and-future-assassin-598dc8f97f34b

(5)   https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58028/if-you-are-over-staying-woke

(6)   https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46562/ballad-of-birmingham

(7)   https://wordpeace.co/current-issue/poetry/joseph-ross/

(8)   https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44694/if-we-must-die

(9)   https://wordpeace.co/current-issue/poetry/joseph-ross/

(10) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53471/rite 


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Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of five books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA.
More at: https://dctexpoet.wordpress.com/
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives.

©2022 Gregory Luce
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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