after George Jackson

Because something else must belong to him,
More than these chains, these cuffs, these cells—
Something more than Hard Rock’s hurt,
More than remembrances of where men
Go mad with craving—corpuscle, epidermis,
Flesh, men buried in the whale of it, all of it,
Because the so many of us mute ourselves,
Silent before the box, fascinated by the drama
Of confined bodies on prime-time television,
These prisons sanitized for entertainment &
These indeterminate sentences hidden, because
We all lack this panther’s rage, the gift
Of Soledad & geographies adorned with state numbers
& names of the dead & dying etched on skin,
This suffering, wild loss, under mass cuffs,
Those buried hours must be about more
Than adding to this surfeit of pain as history
As bars that once held him embrace us.

More by Reginald Dwayne Betts

Shahid Reads His Own Palm

I come from the cracked hands of men who used
           the smoldering ends of blunts to blow shotguns,

men who arranged their lives around the mystery
           of the moon breaking a street corner in half.

I come from "Swann Road" written in a child's
           slanted block letters across a playground fence,

the orange globe with black stripes in Bishop's left
           hand, untethered and rolling to the sideline,

a crowd openmouthed, waiting to see the end
           of the sweetest crossover in a Virginia state pen.

I come from Friday night's humid and musty air,
           Junk Yard Band cranking in a stolen Bonneville,

a tilted bottle of Wild Irish Rose against my lips
           and King Hedley's secret written in the lines of my palm.

I come from beneath a cloud of white smoke, a lit pipe
           and the way glass heats rocks into a piece of heaven,

from the weight of nothing in my palm,
           a bullet in an unfired snub-nosed revolver.

And every day the small muscles in my finger threaten to pull
           a trigger, slight and curved like my woman's eyelashes.

I’m Learning Nothing This Night

The magazine on my lap talks
about milk. Tells me that in America,
every farmer lost money on
every cow, every day of every month
of the year. Imagine that? To wake
up and know you’re digging yourself
deeper into a hole you can’t see
out of, even as your hands are wet
with what feeds you. That’s how this
thing is, holding on & losing a little each
moment. I’m whispering an invented
history to myself tonight—because
letting go is the art of living fully
in the world your body creates
when you sleep. Say a prayer for
the insomniacs. They hunger &
demand the impossible. Pray for
the farmers, hands deep in loam—
body’s weight believing what
the mind knows is ruin, they too
want the impossible, so accustomed
to the earth responding when they call.

For the City that Nearly Broke Me

A woman tattoos Malik’s name above
her breast & talks about the conspiracy
to destroy blacks. This is all a fancy way
to say that someone kirked out, emptied
five or six or seven shots into a still warm body.
No indictment follows Malik’s death,
follows smoke running from a fired pistol.
An old quarrel: crimson against concrete
& the officer’s gun still smoking.
Someone says the people need to stand up,
that the system’s a glass house falling on only
a few heads. This & the stop snitching ads
are the conundrum and damn all that blood.
All those closed eyes imagining Malik’s
killer forever coffled to a series of cells,
& you almost believe them, you do, except
the cognac in your hand is an old habit,
a toast to friends buried before the daybreak
of their old age. You know the truth
of the talking, of the quarrels & how
history lets the blamed go blameless for
the blood that flows black in the street;
you imagine there is a riot going on,
& someone is tossing a trash can through
Sal’s window calling that revolution,
while behind us cell doors keep clanking closed,
& Malik’s casket door clanks closed,
& the bodies that roll off the block
& into the prisons and into the ground,
keep rolling, & no one will admit
that this is the way America strangles itself.

Related Poems

Song as Abridged Thesis of George Perkin Marsh’s Man and Nature

(Poem on the Occasion of the Centenary of the National Park Service)

The pendulous branches of the Norway spruce slowly move
as though approving our gentle walk in Woodstock,
and the oak leaves yellowing this early morning
fall in the parking lot of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller. 
We hear beneath our feet their susurrus
as the churning of wonder, found, too, in the eyes of a child
who has just sprinted toward a paddock of Jersey cows.
The fate of the land is the fate of man.

Some have never fallen in love with a river of grass
or rested in the dignity of the Great Blue Heron
standing alone, saint-like, in a marshland nor envied
the painted turtle sunning on a log, nor thanked as I have,
the bobcat for modeling how to navigate dynasties of snow,
for he survives in both forests and imaginations
away from the dark hands of developers and myths of profits.
The fate of the land is the fate of man.

Some are called to praise as holy, hillocks, ponds, and brooks,
to renew the sacred contract of live things everywhere,
the cold pensive roamings of clouds above Mount Tom,
to extol silkworm and barn owls, gorges and vales,
the killdeer, egret, tern, and loon; some must rest
at the sandbanks, in deep wilderness, by a lagoon,
estuaries or floodplain, standing in the way of the human storm:
the fate of the land is the fate of man.