Jeanette Beebe

PANTOUM FOR FATAL POLICE SHOOTINGS, ON CAMERA AND LIVE-STREAMED

 

What we’ll remember is the black screen, the moments after,
though it held him in his last moments, caught him dying.
“Stay with me," Diamond begged Philando and the world,
crashing into the window we haven’t fixed, a mirror of the sky.  

Though it held him in his last moments, caught him dying, 
the camera was more than a witness. It couldn’t look away,
crashing into the window we haven’t fixed, a mirror of the sky.
We must know what’s coming. We built this house ourselves.

The camera was more than a witness. It couldn’t look away.
“I wanted to put it on Facebook so that the people could see.”
We must know what’s coming. We built this house ourselves,
stunned, like a bird waiting for a breeze to blow through.

“I wanted to put it on Facebook so that the people could see.”
This country is an endless buffering. We freeze, we replay, 
stunned, like a bird waiting for a breeze to blow through.
“Are you sure you want to see this?” Facebook Live asks us.

This country is an endless buffering. We freeze, we replay. 
Alton Sterling was pinned down and shot in Baton Rouge.
“Are you sure you want to see this?” Facebook Live asks us.
We watch to understand, alone with every video we see.

Alton Sterling was pinned down and shot in Baton Rouge.
Philando Castile was shot pointblank in his driver’s seat.
We know what to expect, alone with every video we see.
What pauses when we watch? We don’t even look anymore.

Philando Castile was shot pointblank in his driver’s seat.
“Stay with me," Diamond begged Philando and the world.
What pauses when we watch? We don’t even look anymore.
What we’ll remember is the black screen, the moments after.


I wrote this pantoum this summer, under the guidance of Kamilah Aisha Moon at the Poets House (NYC). Our workshop focused on “elegy and political protest.” Our frank discussions and writing assignments pushed me to respond to “the news” — including issues I didn’t think I was “allowed" to write about.

I’m a white, genderqueer poet and journalist who’s committed to this journey — over and over again — of attempting to understand my privilege. I was born and raised in the bosom of middle America. My father — a former woodshop teacher who worked as a cop before moving to Des Moines, Iowa to raise our family — is a man who loves corn dogs, Harleys, and “Home Improvement”: the show, and the work. My brother’s a mechanic (like many of my cousins), and my mother’s a school nurse. As a kid who read Dickens in the basement and obsessively practiced the piano, I didn’t fit in at school, or at home.

At 15, I fell hard for slam poetry. My coffee shop in Des Moines was full of (mostly white) artsy teens like me — but then, I saw a posting for a Youth Speaks spoken word competition in Minneapolis. My father and I took the truck and made the trip every other weekend. I remember taking the stage alongside poets weaving stories that humbled me, that made me feel quiet. They were storytellers like I’d never seen, with a frenetic rhythm I’d never heard. This was poetry that had stakes. The semi-finals stage held 30 poets: as my decade-old journal says, “28 black poets, 1 Asian poet, and … me.”   

From the very beginning, my relationship with poetry was filtered through race: its performance, and what its differences can do. I made the team, the “funny white chick from Iowa,” with quirky, absurdly dramatic poems: the perils of being a checkout clerk, the odd beauty of calculus class. The national competition that year was in San Francisco — I remember literally hiding in our hotel room closet. I knew I was different, but I didn’t want to be that type of different.

Gradually, I began writing from the place that holds secrets. My poetry changed. I learned how to put pain there, authentically. As a stage and page poet, I think that how we talk about difference matters. I remember when identity was all I could feel. And I chose Princeton because my mentor showed how it’s possible to transform even the most traditional institutions. 

                                    
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