Four poems

Tara Betts


for Sandra Bland

When your life drags in front of you, 
raw meat on a rope along the ground, 
you are less concerned about the dirt.

There is no camera that can protect.
Any daily routine becomes rattled
by doubt and the swift officer’s hold

that ensures you will never come
home. Pressed cuff of your suit
and straight coif fold like bones 

thrown to the ground, oxygen
flattened from your lungs. Fault
is sharply pressed between slats

that used to be your life, adamant
in its value, minted in video footage.
You thanked a person recording

your last living appearance, your final
moment of persistent breath choked, 
women disappear, and churches burn.

Sage and Shields

for Shameeka Dream

On Baltimore’s North Street, 
smudging the officers’ line
with a smoldering sage,
No riot erupted in your face.

A white line of gentle smoke
that your scarf pointed toward
like a compass to cleansing. 

You walked one end
of the line to the other
and embodied breeze.

Black, green, yellow
bracelets on wrists—
land, light, and skin

Your lids lowered
in prayers that every
head under helmet
and shield finds
Hair pulled back.

Water in your left
hand, another way
to cleanse and honor

the dead. Officer shields
held up so high that each
man stood unknowing.

You summoned
another type of army
that they will answer to.

The Suits of Your Skins

for Ciara, David, and Perre

A simple grey suit behind glass.
I stood close enough breathless.
The shooter was almost this close
to Harvey Milk, a man he dropped. 

Faded sepia stains surround
bullet holes, cling to a once
white shirt, now frayed fabric.
There is more than one hole.
Black people know there is
always more than one hole.

There is more than one black
child standing beside me. 
I hold my breath for three
inhales, three exhales for
each because their heads
come at the cheapest price.

And the whispers will say
they deserved restraints,
the beatings were expected,
they were due for death.

And what to tell the black girl
when the magazines erase her
one page at a time. She could
disappear and no one will put
her lost body in a headline.
Her limbs anathema to the news.

And what to tell the two queer
black boys who could be my sons,
who could be beaten into misshapen
blood melons and left like loosely-tied
garbage bags. What to tell the black
children who would be told to never
reach for anything—not a cell phone,
a wallet, a bb gun, a water pistol, 
a dashboard, a doorknob, rights.

And what to tell the white classmates
who do not understand experiments
are carried out on outcasts first. (Say Stop
because you do not want to say I am next.)

And what to tell all the students when
assault vehicles click out of stockpiles
and occupy the streets with tear gas.

Yes, I am looking at a jacket, pants, and shirt
wrinkled after a long day at work, then death.
This suit of a dead white gay man on a stamp
and immortalized in film. The three huddled
around me mean more than a suit for a man
that people still pity. I look still as I tremble
inside for the three students around me—
each of them a brilliant burst just opening
that could be extinguished and only folks
like me will canonize them. I echo my loves. 

I write you down, sketch your stamps, 
remember your jokes, insist the suits
of your skins are not for idle display.

Every 28 hours

Every 28 hours, I find myself wanting to pray.

Every 28 hours, I hear the constant clap getting closer.

Every 28 hours, I wonder if my phone may ring.
Will it be my eclipsed brother’s breath?
    Or my sisters, nephews, nieces, the list
    includes all of us.

Every 28 hours, a black body drops like roadkill
and that is worth less than abandoned storefronts
or a broken window.

Every 28 hours, a student I may have fed with food
cooked in my own kitchen may disappear.

Every 28 hours, the jangling of a mother’s jagged
tears drags along eardrums.

Every 28 hours,  you will hear someone say
he got what he deserved and why
are they so destructive?

Every 28 hours, an officer’s aim is rewarded with pay, 
vacation, and benefits, including breath.

Every 28 hours, a parent wonders if the child
they carried will be discarded, a case dismissed.

Every 28 hours, a death is backed up with armored
vehicles, automatic weapons, teargas, bulletproof
vests and shields. We are not in a distant war.

Every 28 hours, we are still counting, shaking,
sweating, breathing, unless we reach our 28th hour. 

We are at home—so they say, for every hour.

Written for a post-Ferguson protest at
Binghamton City Hall – Binghamton, NY
November 25, 2014

Tara Betts is the author of Arc & Hue and the chapbooks 7 x 7: kwansabas and THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali. Tara holds a Ph.D. in English from Binghamton University and a MFA from New England College.