It’s easier to talk about “tragedy” than it is to talk about “injustice.”
New video! Thanks again to Button Poetry for hosting me in their office for this shoot. Aside from rehearsals, it was my first time performing a lot of these poems from the new book—including this one. If you don’t already know, Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough doesn’t take place on our world. It follows two poets, the robot Gyre and their apprentice, the human Nary, as they travel from village to village across a prison colony moon. The poems in the book are a mix of Nary’s poems and the poems the duo hears from the people who live in the villages they visit. A Hundred People Died on First Hill is one of the latter: an unnamed speaker recounting a catastrophe it feels like everyone else has moved on from.
Of course, a big part of building science-fictional worlds is to comment on our own, and “recounting a catastrophe it feels like everyone else has moved on from” obviously has real-world resonance. From the pandemic, to Palestine, to police violence, to all kinds of actual injustices—we need to be writing about those directly too, not just indirectly like in this piece. It’s a tension present throughout the book, and my hope is that it’s a generative tension, especially for someone with a long history of writing explicitly about political issues; I was just curious about what doors could open up via the sci-fi approach. I don’t think it’s a better or worse way of writing, just something different.
With this piece, I wanted to attempt to describe the emotional side of seeing the world move on from the thing you care about, but also explore the “so what.” The “so what” is something a poem doesn’t have to have, but I’ve always been drawn to it. In this piece, there isn’t one easy solution or magic key to making everything better, but in gesturing at concepts like art and vandalism (and even a specific kind of vandalism), questioning and refusal, etc., there is a path from “hey look at this terrible thing” to “we have power and agency to do something about this terrible thing.”
I don’t think it’s the poet’s job to give people easy answers, but I do see part of my job (not every poet’s job, but mine) as illuminating that path. Even if it’s only that first step. I’m reminded of this Marge Piercy quote (which you may recognize because I included it in this zine too):
“There’s always a thing you can deny an oppressor, if only your allegiance. Your belief. Your co-oping. Often even with vastly unequal power, you can find or force an opening to fight back. In your time many without power found ways to fight. Till that became a power.”
Here’s the full text of my poem:
A HUNDRED PEOPLE DIED ON FIRST HILL
A hundred people died on First Hill. And shock makes
me a guest in my own body, politely asking for directions,
getting lost anyway. That body moves through my home,
sweeping the entryway, chopping the mushrooms, while I
sit on my bed and stare at the floor. A hundred people died
on First Hill. And the songs don’t mention their names.
And I don’t know their names. And a hundred is more than
three (my cats), or two (my mother’s parents), or one (of
course), and still somehow less. A hundred people died
on First Hill. And died is correct because it is active, concise,
direct. Were murdered represents both passive voice and
blatant editorializing. Were allowed to die: unnecessarily
wordy. A hundred people died on First Hill. And the Boss
calls them heroes. But did they die because they were heroes,
or are they heroes because they died? Does calling someone
a hero make it easier to accept their death? The Boss says
we should honor the heroes by being fearless. I try, but
fearless feels exactly like numb. How does the Boss benefit
from my numbness? A hundred people died on First Hill.
And a thousand of us in the valley lose our sense of touch.
I decide to write a hundred names (even though I don’t know
them) on a hundred walls (even though my hands are asleep).
I touch a wall I cannot feel and paint blooms; each letter
swirls into the next, ballooning out into names that cannot be
read, so must be right. A hundred people died on First Hill.
And the Boss finds their names all over the village. And it’s
easier to talk about vandalism than it is to talk about a
hundred people dying. Like how it’s easier to talk about
tragedy than it is to talk about injustice. Like how it’s easier
to take my hands than to wake them. The names are erased,
painted over, disappeared. I sit on my bed, staring at the
floor, again. The shock remains. Blooms into lightning where
I once had hands. Curls slowly, finger by finger, into fists.