Tuesday, December 15, 2015

New from Tinfish Press!!!

To end the year, Tinfish Press has published five chapbooks--a long essay by Lisa Samuels, as well as four 7" chapbooks by Timothy Dyke, Jen Crawford, Joseph Han, and Salah Faik (trans. Maged Zaher). You can find these books and more at tinfishpress.com

You can purchase the chapbooks separately for $12 each, or together for $36. Samuels's chapbook is $13 and is also available at spdbooks.org.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

My very most latest response to UHM administration on the student death protocol issue

The ASUH resolution, passed unanimously on Sept. 23rd, was in support of a student death protocol. The Graduate Student Organization passed a similar resolution by a similar vote (one vote only was negative). The Vice Chancellor for Students has responded to the resolution with a 2 1/2 page letter to say thanks, but no thanks. Here is the resolution; what follows is my response to the VCS's letter. (Click to enlarge.)

7 November 2015

Dear Regents, President Lassner, Chancellor Bley-Vroman, Mānoa Faculty Senate, and representatives of ASUH and GSO:

I write in response to the letter of 30 October 2015 from VCS Lori Ideta, which in turn responds to the ASUH Resolution 06-16 “in Support of More Integral Procedures in the UHM Protocol Regarding Deceased Students,” which passed on 23 September. This resolution, passed unanimously, is similar to one passed by the GSO, which voted overwhelmingly in favor of theirs. It calls for better communication in the event of tragedies at UHM, as well as a wider net for grief counseling. The GSO resolution also calls for more attention to suicide prevention on the UHM campus. I strongly support the student government resolutions. Let me respond here to VCS Ideta's letter.

My deep investment in this issue is based on my having had a student in a class over a year ago who was deeply traumatized by witnessing another student's death. Other students were deeply distressed that day, and some remain so. I wondered why I had no knowledge of a tragedy on campus, or any idea how to handle it. I have heard since from students and colleagues who had to do research on-line to find out what happened to a classmate; who wondered what had happened to a student who disappeared; who put together a memorial service for a friend on their own, rather than with the help of the university.

In the second paragraph of the response to ASUH, VCS Ideta et al write: “the UHM campus has long-established uniform protocols and practices to compassionately, appropriately, and sensitively respond to death.” The only death protocol I was given, when I asked, was two pages long, and desperately out of date. Where are the documents? What are these protocols and practices? Why does the administration not share this information and knowledge with students or faculty?

Issues of family notification and privacy concerns come up in VCS Ideta's letter. The resolution addresses this issue, too: “the ASUH fully respects the privacy of the family and 'ohana of deceased students,” they write. As for the privacy concerns covered by FERPA, they do not extend beyond a student's death; FERPA relates to educational records, not the announcement of a death.

The VCS's mention of a “glorification of suicide” is simply over the top. For cutting edge material on preventing “suicide contagion” in reporting a death, I ask that you refer to the following resource, used by media and universities across the country to explain “safe messaging” in the case of suicide: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/recommendations-for-reporting-on-suicide.shtml Suicide is the second leading cause of death among the college age population in this country; saying nothing about it is simply not an option. The question is how to talk about it, and so prevent further suicides.

The VCS's assertion that benchmark institutions operate largely without protocols is highly misleading. There are 18 benchmark institutions, which you can find by googling “UHM benchmark institutions.” Among their ways to deal with student deaths are the following, existing with or without a full on-line protocol:

Annual memorial services for deceased faculty, staff and students: SUNY-Buffalo; U of Missouri, U of Oregon; UC-Berkeley.
Compassionate communication to the community from administration: Indiana University, UC-Davis, UCLA, University of Minnesota, CU-Boulder, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colorado State, LSU, and the University of Virginia (which is a peer institution, not a benchmark, according to the records I found). This includes obituaries in newspapers and on-line.
Posthumous degrees: U of Oregon, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri.
Behavioral Intervention Teams: Arizona State University, the University of Oregon, (as well as the University of Washington-Bothell, which is a benchmark institution to UHWO) have Behavioral Intervention Teams, which are a current “best practice.” To find out more about BITs, which provide eyes and ears to locating distressed students, please see here: https://nabita.org/behavioral-intervention-teams/

Would you rather learn of the death of your student, colleague, or classmate by way of Facebook rumors or from a leader at the university? Would you feel comfortable hearing about a death on campus from local or even international media sources, or from someone at this institution? Would you like such communications to include information about where to find grief counseling on campus? These are questions we need to ask ourselves.

Further: would you rather be at an institution that takes student needs and desires into consideration or one that thanks them and then ignores their votes? That, also, we need to think about.

Finally, I ask you to consider the first paragraph of the UC-Berkeley Chancellor's Compliance Services page that reads: “How we handle death reflects how we value people in our community. As a campus, not only do we celebrate each others' accomplishments, but we are supportive and compassionate during difficult times. Good communication is particularly important following the loss of a member of our campus community.” Or listen to our own students, when they write in the ASUH resolution: “acknowledgement of an incidence of death within a community may in itself serve as a commemoration for the life of the deceased.”

Yours truly,

Susan M. Schultz
Professor of English

Attached: Resource Sheet

University Mental Health Resource Sheet

(selected resources from benchmark institutions only—other colleges and universities have great resources, too)

Protocols from other institutions

Relevant Mental Health Organizations

The Jed Foundation: http://www.jedfoundation.org/

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): http://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml

Safe Messaging about Suicide:

Suicide Prevention Resource Center: http://www.sprc.org/library/SafeMessagingfinal.pdf

Action Alliance:

Expressions of Support to Communities from benchmark institutions

University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://news.wisc.edu/21670

Wisconsin-Madison obituaries: http://news.wisc.edu/obituaries

LSU on-line memorial site: http://www.legacy.com/memorial-sites/lsu/

Campus memorials

Posthumous degrees

University of Missouri:

University of Minnesota:

University of Oregon:

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Creating Compassion Contagion on the UHM Campus

As a Professor of English and a writer, I believe that words matter. Unlike sticks and stones, they might not break my bones, but they can certainly hurt me. Words can also reassure me that I'm cared for, whether by a family member or by the institution to which I belong. But the words that express personal caring--those by family members and friends--are not the same words as those that express the caring of an institution. There's a big difference between individual compassion and that of an organization. We can find that difference in the current debate over student death protocols at UHM. Over a year ago, I and members of a group that has formed around mental health issues at UHM, went to the administration to request that there be more communication between them and us after a student death. We were assured then, as we are still being assured, that UHM handles on-campus tragedies well, and that administrators are compassionate in their attention to students.

I have no argument with their claims to be compassionate. No one who is not a caring person goes into education. But I do have an argument with their elision of personal with institutional compassion. In my experience, students and faculty at UHM do not feel that the the university cares about or for them. In large numbers, they don't know where the Counseling Center is on campus (see here). In the cases of deaths on campus, they often don't know, except from social media or the rumor mill, that someone they know, or know of, has died. And, if they are traumatized by that loss, unless the administration finds them--on the floor of the dorm where the dead student lived, in clubs, on teams--they don't know that counseling is available to them. Faculty, who are in a profound sense the first responders to tragedy on campus, often have no idea how to deal with distressed students.

As I lobbied for the protocol over this past year, I've learned that UHM does some things very well. They have a Counselor-in-Residence program in the dorms; they do their best to "target" friends of the deceased; they provide emergency/crisis counseling. Someone from counseling came to my department to talk about how to deal with "distressed students." I learned that counselors have been coming for years to talk to grad student instructors; this was the first time all of us were invited (by one of our Mental Health Hui members is in my department).. But even where they are doing a good job, communicating the availability of their services is a weak link. If you're a student in crisis, do you know that you need to tell the person at the CDSC desk that you need to see a counselor immediately? If you're a faculty member with a suicidal student, do you know to call CDSC yourself? If you have a friend in distress, do you know that you can reach out for them? Increasingly, I think that the fundamental problem is one of communication. Who died? How many each year? (At a recent meeting, administrators could not answer this question.) Who is left grieving? Where do they go? How can I help? These are among the questions that need to be answered. To pose them is not to attack the Counseling Center; in point of fact, we are trying to get more people to use their services.

And the UHM Counseling Center is in a very difficult position. According to the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, "The level of severity of college students' presenting concerns is also much greater than the traditional presenting problems of adjustment issues and individuation that were typically identified in counseling center research from the 1950s through the early 1980s." Mental health issues are becoming more frequent, and more serious, across the United States. "According to a survey of over 100,000 U.S. college students at 130 universities conducted by teh Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), 1 in 5 students report having experienced sexual assault, 1 in 10 have attempted suicide, 1 in 3 take psychiatric medication, 1 in 4 have self-injufred and 1 in 3 have experienced a traumatic event." This report goes on to argue: "it is increasingly important for college counseling professionals to be prepared to work with physicians, community mental health providers, other campus departments, and health care professional to create an appropriate systemic response to student's needs." These are dry words, but behind them lies a great deal of anguish and a terrific need for care. According to their Director, UHM's Counseling Center already has a backlog of students needing their services. So, when I argue that we need to send more students there, I also want to insist that the legislature provide more funding for mental health services in the UH system. If we can afford frequent pay-offs for administrators and coaches who leave under ethical clouds, surely we can afford some ethical and much needed funding to care for  the young people who attend our state university.

The questions I posed above are answered at many other universities by a protocol. The UC-Berkeley protocol is on-line,  They also have a "Gold Folder," that includes an amazing brochure on how to deal with distressed students: find the link here. (Find another one from the University of Virginia here). It features compassionate language, as well as directions for everything from notifying the school of a death to dealing with grief. I'm told by administrators at our university that the protocol is awfully complicated and that, as one administrator said at a recent meeting, "they simply ignore it." After speaking for an hour with the woman who runs the "Guidelines for Responding to Death" website at Berkeley, I can assure that administrator that the protocol is used. The same for the College of William & Mary protocol, which runs to over 20-pages of guidelines and checklists (down to the tissues and mints an intern should have in a "grief kit" after a tragedy). A Faculty Senate committee on students was told by an administrator that parents of students who died at William & Mary were upset with the university for announcing their child's death. When I talked to Ginger Ambler, the Vice President for Student Affairs there, she assured me that they do nothing without the permission of the family, although they counsel each family that being open about suicide brings about needed conversations on campus. We were also told by an administrator at UHM that UH-Hilo, whose protocol is on-line, never approved it. When I emailed an administrator at UHH, I was assured that it was approved in 2010 and it's followed.

Now not all protocols say the same things. While William & Mary announces deaths by emails to the entire community, other schools do not. Berkeley is one of those. But Berkeley has an annual Memorial Service for everyone associated with the institution who died in the previous year. According to the website's administrator, Wendy Nishikawa, who also runs the Work/Life Balance website, they announce the memorial service to the entire community a couple of weeks before it happens, so that they can find out about deaths they might have missed (their website offers directions on how to notify the administration of a death). Then there's a one hour service, during which all the names are called out and so remembered. You can see a video of the most recent service here:


I don't know if the bagpipes are culturally appropriate for a similar service in Hawai`i, but the rest of the Berkeley service is respectful, sober, and offers solace to those who gather together. The video shows a goodly number of people present. There's a student newspaper report on the event, as well, which includes a list of those who died. The Berkeley student newspaper also ran a beautiful obituary for one of the students who'd died, Selam Sekuar. You can read that here. When I spoke to someone in the Counseling Center at the University of Virginia, (If you click on the UVA site, take a long look at the resources that they put on their webpage.) I was told that they report deaths with the help of the student newspaper. He meets with young reporters to make it clear how to report deaths in a way that does not cause "suicide contagion" (or the possibility that one suicide can become a model for others to follow). He distributes this document to young reporters:


But the mere fact that not all protocols are the same, or that they are not always followed to the letter, is not a good argument for not writing one. And that is the administration's stand at UHM right now, that every exception to a rule means that the rule itself is faulty, inapplicable to our situation, and so on. That, because all deaths are unique, our treatment of them must always be different. (To which my husband responds: firefighters know that every fire is unique, but they follow protocols in their attempts to put them out.) UHM is waiting for the crisis to happen before they respond. What we are suggesting is that they not wait so long as that. Come up with something on paper (something a lot better than the few pages I was sent when I asked) use some of the ideas that are brought to you, no matter where they come from (an English professor, a non-benchmark institution), and make a task force of interested parties from administration, the counseling center, the faculty and the students. Then put it on-line, so everyone can see it. Then revisit the protocol often, to make sure it works as well as it can.

The undergraduate government organization (ASUH) voted unanimously in favor of a protocol; the graduate group (GSO) voted overwhelmingly in favor. At these meetings, I found myself in an adversarial relationship with administrators: I argued for a protocol, and they argued against. I say there are problems; they say there are not. I'm wondering what it will take for us to sit down at the table and share our positive ideas about how better to communicate on campus, between administrators and students, but also between administrators and each other, administrators and faculty, faculty and students). I'm tired of showing up to put on yet another episode of Cross-Fire, whose major fascination was not how problems were resolved, but how dramatically they were perpetuated.

Back to the question of language, and how it can be used compassionately by an institution: the headnote to UC-Berkeley's "Guidelines to Responding to Death on the UC-Berkeley Campus," states: "The true character of our campus community is revealed in how we respond to challenges, adversity and loss." Chancellor Dirks  The first paragraph of the UH-Hilo Student Death protocol reads: "The death of a student can be deeply emotional and stressful for students, faculty, staff, and the family of the student. It is the aim of the University of Hawai'i at Hilo to respond appropriately and sensitively in the event of the death of a currently enrolled student. To that end, the following protocol has been developed to ensure a caring, professional, coordinated, and consistent response by the University administration." Even closer to home, and without a protocol in place (I'm told one is in the works), UH-West Oahu sends out occasional emails to their community about mental health, and I quote from one: "The 'Mental Health Moment' is brought to you by the University of Hawai'i – West O'ahu (UHWO) Counseling Services (CS). It is our hope to provide our UHWO 'ohana with information and resources needed to help our community live healthier and more meaningful lives. We encourage all of you to be agents of change in your families and friends by contacting CS if you know of anyone who may be dealing with emotional or psychological problems." What follows from this introduction is a list of reasons why a student might want to go in for counseling.

No matter the procedures outlined in these documents or emails, the frame around them is compassionate. But compassion does not end with the frame; it emerges from the checklists featured in some of them; it emerges from the directions about how to talk to grieving families. It emerges in the very fact of there being such documents. It emerges when an institution allows itself to speak, rather than leaving cruel silences. That's what it means for institutions to have compassion.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Questions for Administration re: Student Death Protocols & Suicide Prevention (or the lack thereof)

I will write more soon about my recent adventures in admin. But for now, some questions. Please feel to ask them yourselves.

Questions for the Vice Chancellor of Students' Office & The Counseling Center

On the Student Death Protocol Issue

--How many UHM students die each year? Have you categorized or studied them? Please provide details and statistics.

--Describe the procedures you have for handling a death by natural or accidental causes, as opposed to suicides. Are they different procedures? (According to best practices (see links below), all deaths should be treated in the same way to avoid the risk of suicide contagion.) In these cases of natural or accidental deaths, how do you reach out to the friends and acquaintances and staff members? How do you notify them of them of services that are available, in case of trauma?

--How do students who do not live in the dorms receive notice of a fellow classmate's death? Do Counselors reach out to them in the same way as they do for Student Housing residents? Please verify.

--We were told that the administration sent out a notification of a student's death to the community once, in 2006, and the victim's sister was re-traumatized by it. Did you notify the family that you would be putting a notice out before you did so? What can you do to avoid re-traumatizing someone without simply remaining silent, bearing in mind that hearing of a death through the rumor mill is itself traumatizing?

--When there are memorial services for students who died, how were people notified of these services? How many people were notified and how were they chosen? How often has UHM assisted families and friends in having such services?

--It appears that you notify only the very easiest to reach students who might be acquainted with the victim--the people on the same floor, the people in their clubs, and professors of their classes. How do you think that this represents the important acquaintances and friends of this person? What more could you be doing?

--Granted, we cannot always "beat" the news cycle about deaths on campus, can we enter the news cycle as a compassionate institution, rather than saying nothing?

--How will the compassionate procedures now in place (but not published or available to us in any way) be passed on to the next administrators, given that people retire or leave Hawai'i for other jobs?

On Mental Health Issues and Counseling

--What fraction of students in crisis are you able to serve? How do you know this? How does the Counseling Center receive funding and additional resources if they are experiencing an influx of students in need of services?

--How many students are treated by the Counseling Center currently? Over the past year? The past decade? How many more resources are needed to provide services to those students in need who have not been served.
--What specifically was done with the grant money from SAMSHA that the Director of Counseling mentions at recent meetings with ASUH, GSO and the Faculty Senate committee (aside from buying an ad in Ka Leo to announce their table at campus center)? Please provide detailed examples and outcomes (i.e. the final report).
--Where can faculty easily access information on what you do, both in crisis, and in the day to day, to care for our students?
--How does the Counseling Center support national mental health programs such as National Suicide Prevention Month? Please provide examples.

--How does the Counseling Center use state and local mental health services to educate and support UH students?

Communications Issues

--Who is the Communications and Outreach person for the Counseling Center, and how do they communicate with a student body of roughly 20,000? Please provide examples of on-going efforts that span the academic or calendar year.

--Only about 1,500 students pay to participate in New Student Orientation each fall. How are students who do not pay to participate in New Student Orientation informed of Counseling Center services? Please provide examples of on-going efforts.

--How does a staff member first hear about the Counseling Center services on campus? Where is there information about this through OHR?

Some resources on dealing with suicide in schools (for those who don't know of them)


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Today's "The Conversation"

I was on HPR this morning, talking about student death protocols, suicide prevention, and such. You can listen here: http://hpr2.org/post/conversation-tuesday-august-25th-2015

And remember to sign the petition, here: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/UHM_administration_Develop_student_death_protocol_mount_suicide_prevention_activities/

Thank you--


Saturday, August 22, 2015

One essay, one television appearance, and one petition to sign

The essay, "Why UH-Manoa needs a student death protocol," which appears also on this blog, in somewhat different form, came out in The Hawaii Independent, here.

Keoki Kerr's interview of me on KGMB can be found here, along with a transcript that is better than what was shown during the news. You can see and read it here.

Finally, I sent a petition out into the world. It's mainly for people with UHM ties, but if you have another good reason to sign it, please do, and just say why in the little box. Read it and sign it here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Good Samaritan Was Not a University Administrator

Last September, I walked into a class and set up a writing exercise, intended to last most of the class period. One of my students, let's call him Philippe, appeared agitated and asked to speak to me outside the room. As soon as we got into the concrete corridor, he told me that a friend of his had been killed in a car accident that weekend in Texas. Then he said that he'd been sitting outside his dorm the day before when someone landed near him, someone who had fallen from a great height. "His name was Abel. Abel," he said. I told him to get his things, and we walked to the Counseling Center together. As it turned out, he got an appointment four days later, because he neglected to say that he was very immediately traumatized.

After leaving him at the Counseling Center, I returned to class. Everyone was busily writing, so I opened a novel I'd brought to pass the time. I have no memory of what book it was, but I when opened to the first page, I was stunned to read the name of the protagonist. It was Abel. Since that day, I have tried to get my university to create a protocol for dealing with student and faculty deaths, and for better advertising their mental health services. This quest, in which I'm joined by a small group of like-minded faculty and students, has led me into a Kakfa-esque world of university administration.

In brief: I and several graduate students from around campus had a meeting with the Dean of Students and the head of university housing last October. The head of the counseling center, with whom I'd spoken on the phone a couple of days after Abel's death, was a no-show. I never heard from her. We presented a package of materials that included models for dealing with deaths, whether by suicide or not. (Abel had not, apparently, committed suicide, but been under the influence of drugs.)

The reasons for not announcing Abel's death or creating a memorial service for him (or anything) were the following:

--Because there is no campus police force, the Honolulu PD takes over in cases like this one, and they don't communicate back with UHM;

--They didn't announce the death because he might not have died, and that would be terribly embarrassing to the institution;

--While every stolen moped is reported to the entire community, deaths are not, because there's a rule that thefts must be reported. There's no rule about deaths.

--And besides, cultural issues are very complicated in Hawai`i.


--UHM needs a police force (this made my stomach fall); and

--Nothing can be done. Though they would think about it.

At the beginning of this year, I asked for a follow-up appointment and heard nothing back. I sent at least three emails that were not answered. There was administrative "churn" going on, as the Dean had become interim VC and the head of housing had become the Dean. There were dorms to move into and--later in the semester--to move out of. There is a lot to do. But I persisted, and finally received a doodle form so that members of my group and members of the new Dean's group could meet. We filled it out and then nothing happened. When I appeared to accept a teaching award, I rain into the VC, who assured me we would meet again, soon. The semester ended. I got a brief note of apology. Busy time of year. Will be back in touch. Then it was summer.

This past weekend, two young men fell from one of the UHM dorms. The story is compelling because one of the men was apparently trying to save the other from committing suicide. The man who reached out to save the other is dead, and the potential suicide is in critical condition in the hospital. It's a great story. It's a Biblical parable. Even the Good Samaritan did not die for his act of concern for a fellow human being. When President Obama or the Pope talk about "grace" as an accidental thing, they might be talking about this young man who, without thinking about his own safety, died thinking about someone else's.

The story broke on the day it happened. It broke on local television and in the newspaper. The head of UHM communications sent out an email to a rather random lot of deans, an email that someone sent to me, that alerted them about media presence on campus following this event. The subject line of the email was MEDIA. That message got passed around a bit and ended up with the interim VC of students, the former Dean, who wrote a message about how wonderful the counseling center is and people are encouraged to use it. Her email still bore the header MEDIA at the top, though it was now about crisis response to a tragedy on campus.

That was Sunday. On Monday, the campus email list remained quiet. There was no notification of an event on campus, no note of horror, no advice to seek counseling if you needed it. Nothing. I wrote to the VC and the Dean. I copied that email to the Chancellor. He wrote back to say he was consulting with "communications folks" and that he "may" say something. The Dean wrote back that students in the nearly empty dorms were being offered counseling and that he would be in touch to talk about the larger issues later. Later in the day, as I sat in my office, the Chair and Associate Chair of my department came by with the new Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. She was taking notes on broken air conditioners (such as my own) as she toured my decrepit building. I said that I was more angry on this day about the tragedy on campus that UHM admin had said nothing about. The three of them stared at me. They had no idea. I advised them to watch the news.

This morning, we received emails from UHM. They read: "The State Department of Transportation is closing the H-1 Freeway eastbound University Avenue off-ramp on Wednesday, August 19, and Thursday, August 20, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for repair work." In the meantime, the story has spread like wildfire: it's been in USA Today and on the front page of Yahoo. As the story spreads, the notes of condolence and horror grow louder from UHM's communications director. But perhaps more to the point, the article includes this sentence: "On Monday afternoon, there were mostly maintenance workers and cleaning staff outside the dorm getting ready for students to move in."

I have recorded most of my communications with administration--if they can be called communications--on my Facebook page. One friend, Casey Nishimura, offered up two immediate suggestions.

First, UHM should put this in their rules:

3.52 Internal Communications before External Communications
Employees and students of UHM have the right to know how a situation or development might affect them before the external public. UHM will inform employees and students first before a story or development is made public. Sometimes information is simultaneously released internally and externally if timing is particularly critical.

Then, when a tragedy happens--and they do--they should respond this way (he said it took him five minutes to write):

I am writing with terribly sad news that we received notice from the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) that, around 2:00 a.m. this morning, a man died after falling from a dormitory while trying to save another man who was considering suicide. The other man also fell and is currently in critical condition. HPD is investigating the incident. The two men were not UH students. We are currently reaching out directly to support those students most affected by this devastating loss. The University staff is also making every effort to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragic incident.

As a community, we all mourn this loss and extend our thoughts and prayers to those affected during this difficult time. A variety of resources are available to members of the university community affected by this incident. The University Counseling Center can be reached at 808-XXX-XXXX.

It's been nearly a year since Abel Pelligrino died. I think about him a lot. He was from Saipan, far from home, and he was a sweet young man. I know that because I know the woman who taught him Freshman Composition and the graduate student who worked with her. They were shattered by the news, when they got it. I've talked at length to the young woman who was closest to him when he died. She spent a semester writing an article about his death. You can read it here. 


You can read about the Good Samaritan here, from Luke 10 of the King James Bible:

29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

To be a neighbor is to be adjacent to someone else, to live next to them. It's a spatial term. "We're neighbors!" my little girl called out from an adjoining stall in a women's room once, and someone else laughed. There was a wall between us, but we could hear each other. Frost's neighbors kept a wall between them, in part so they could meet to mend it. Having neighbors often involves ignoring annoyances, or lending someone a kitchen item (though when last that happened I can't remember). Or it involves intervening in their lives without telling them, even though sometimes they find out when they get the call from Social Services or from their daughter's school.

But I don't think that's the kind of neighbor Jesus is getting at in this parable. That kind of neighbor too often requires thought, or a blanking out of thought. At times it requires strategy. The Good Samaritan is one who does not think. Rather, he sees and he acts. He cuts through the barriers that divided Samaritans from Jews. His actions aren't momentary, like handing the suffering man a burger, or saying a kind hello. Instead, he houses the man, gives him money to go on his way the next day. That kind of neighbor does not admit barriers or borders. As Thomas Gumbleton writes: "Yet Jesus says, 'That's the one.' The Samaritan reaches out, so who's really the neighbor: the one who removes the barriers, who sees the one who is in need? Someone he must respond to, not asking questions about his worthiness, questions about his race, questions about his religion. Here's a fellow human being in need. Have compassion; reach out in love at this moment now."

The 24-year old man who died trying to save the suicidal 19-year old the other day reached out. He ought not to have done so. He should have stayed inside the dorm and talked the teenager back inside, if he could. If not, he should have let the guy jump. That's the sensible and non-self-destructive view of the situation, at least as it's being painted in the press. (Who really knows where the story comes from?) He failed to think. Failing to think is a problem. It's also an element of all the virtues I can think of, from generosity to kindness to what spiritual traditions refer to as love. Failing to think is also failing to fear.

No university administrator can claim to be without fear. Administrators fear law suits, mostly, and so they do a lot of ass-covering, which usually results in a lot of not-doing-anything. Their high salaries seem predicated on blocking things from ever occurring, as much as getting anything done. (And UHM salaries for high administrators are due to be raised soon, the newspaper tells us just this morning.) In this Kafka-esque realm, the act of reaching out to someone in need gets so complicated that simply expressing condolences becomes not an act of compassion but an instrumental use of language to deflect blame.

To find compassionate administrative language about death, one need only look as far as our sister school, UH-Hilo. The document begins this way: "The death of a student can be deeply emotional and stressful for students faculty, staff, and the family of the student. It is the aim of the University of Hawaii at Hilo to respond appropriately and sensitively in the event of the death of a currently enrolled students. To that end, the following protocol has been developed to ensure a caring, professional, coordinated, and consistent response by the University administration." The language is economical, direct, and expresses compassion, even as the rest of the document fills in practical, nitty gritty details. For the full UH-Hilo protocol, all six pages of it, click here.

My latest communication from the Chancellor is not something I will post here. But I will quote my response to him:

Dear Robert--thank you for responding to my emails. I appreciate that. And believe me, I understand the problem of academic politics. But I wrote to you because you're the Chancellor. You're at the top of the administrative mountain. What you say and do provides a model for what those under you do and say. And you don't need even to specify name or cause of death. There doesn't even need to be a protocol yet. Here's what someone I know (Casey Nishimura) proposes as a model email from administration:

I am writing with terribly sad news that we received notice from the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) that, around 2:00 a.m. this morning, a man died after falling from a dormitory while trying to save another man who was considering suicide. The other man also fell and is currently in critical condition. HPD is investigating the incident. The two men were not UH students. We are currently reaching out directly to support those students most affected by this devastating loss. The University staff is also making every effort to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragic incident.

As a community, we all mourn this loss and extend our thoughts and prayers to those affected during this difficult time. A variety of resources are available to members of the university community affected by this incident. The University Counseling Center can be reached at 808-XXX-XXXX.

I don't see how such a communication would get anyone in trouble. What it would do is inform the community and allow it to begin a process of healing.

That said, I love the introduction to UH-Hilo's "Protocol for Responding to a Student Death." Allow me to quote it:

"The death of a student can be deeply emotional and stressful for students, faculty, staff, and the family of the student. It is the aim of the University of Hawaı̒i at Hilo to respond appropriately and sensitively in the event of the death of a currently enrolled student. To that end, the following protocol has been developed to ensure a caring, professional, coordinated, and consistent response by the University administration."

The man who died reached out to someone who was suffering. At that moment, he didn't care about his own life. He lost that life. Let his courage be a model for ours.

aloha, Susan



Saturday, August 15, 2015

Some news from the editor/poet

At the end of August, the poetry journal, Ladowitch, will feature the first 12 of the Traherne series of Memory Cards. Subscribe via the Apple app store. The editors are Jordan Davis & Chris Edgar, who used to run The Hat.

This Fall, Essay Press will be publishing an on-line chapbook of my Traherne poems in their EP Series. Andy Fitch is the editor. Here's the draft cover:

And next year, Talisman House will publish the full run of 100 memory cards based on Thomas Traherne's first century of meditations. The editor/publisher is Ed Foster, who published some of my early reviews and poems back when they were in Hoboken and we were all a lot younger. I also attended one of the Russian/American poetry shindigs in Hoboken in 1994 (or so) and have fond--and troubling--memories of the event.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Meditation: On Meditation as a Public Act (Montaigne, Kathleen Stewart, Ta-Nahisi Coates)

And the only things I treat of adequately are nothing, the only knowledge I deal with is no-knowledge.


Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.

--Wallace Stevens

At once abstract and concrete, ordinary affects are more directly compelling than ideologies, as well as more fractious, multiplicitous, and unpredictable than symbolic meanings.

--Kathleen Stewart

I'm thinking of a problem. It goes like this: the tradition of meditative writing that I participate in as poet and essayist seems ill-equipped to our era. The meditative writer, from Montaigne to Stevens, takes himself as subject. While Montaigne asserts that, "Every man carries in himself the complete pattern of human nature," very few of these men [sic] have the luxury to mine that pattern in themselves. When I teach meditative poetry in my classes, I often meet resistance. It's white-guy writing. It comes of privilege. Only they have the time and the means. It's individualistic. It erases history.  The meditative tradition is that of individuals who hope that their experiences might be significant to other individuals, though in some ways it doesn't matter. It's not a communal politics. I both agree and disagree with this diagnosis, hence this meditation.


Meditation moves on a transom from detail to meaning and then back. This is not to say that these meanings are symbolic; rather, they move and float and dissipate, refusing to fix themselves. Meditation is an activity, not the means to an end. In that sense, it follows the same graph as our emotions, gathering and then evaporating, but leaving behind clues to their having happened.


Can there be such a thing as a public meditation? Can meditation cross from the "I" to the "We" without simply asserting that it has? Is there a place for meditative writing now, when our needs are so immediately political: economic injustice, racism, a degraded environment? You know the list. And, if so, how might a meditative practice create community, without enforcing its boundaries, like the Oath-Keepers "protecting the Constitution" with semi-automatic weapons? What might be the loose parameters of these meditations?


First, what are the strengths of this tradition? Aside from the joys of introspection, I mean. Aside from the fascination to be found in chance relations: "I have no other drill-sergeant but chance to put order in my writings," notes Montaigne. Aside from permission to know less, and feel and think more? To craft an education that has less to do with test-taking than with making a self to meet the world? And a death that is the full expression of our life, an idea Montaigne keeps returning to? To pursue a spiritual practice that releases us from the most intense of what Kathleen Stewart would call our "surges": anger, violence, self-destruction. "Life," writes Montaigne, "should contain its own aim, its own purposes; its proper study is to regulate itself, guide itself, endure itself." The joys are also aesthetic: writing that meanders, that takes the long route home, that improvises, those are the ones I want to follow. Not those that offer a package to take home and put on the shelf. I want Emily Dickinson's shelf (the one where her life is) to fall, and I want to be its witness.


But the primary strength, in the context of my problem, is that meditative writing cannot be ideological. Or, perhaps more to the point, meditative writing--at its best--is non-judgmental. It forces the question of complicity, or mirroring. "A hundred times a day, when laughing at our neighbours, we are laughing at ourselves," Montaigne notes. Or, as Tacitus taught him: "All general judgements are weak and imperfect." For Montaigne and other writers in this tradition, the incident is more significant than any rule according to which the incident occurred. Detail is more valuable than the law. "We are all wind. . . It does not desire stability or solidity, qualities that do not belong to it."  Or, as Kathleen Stewart writes in Ordinary Affects: "The closure of 'the self' or 'community' or some kind of 'meaning' is something dreamy that happens in a moment of hope or hindsight. But it's not just ideology or irrelevant fancy, but rather an actual fold or texture in the composition of things."


Even "self" is an ideology: "It's a dream, hovering, not-quite-there thing." But if the self is evanescent, then how can we connect it to other selves in community? Stewart does this by moving her meditation from self to others; she even calls herself "she," rather than "I." Mostly letting drop the vocabulary she uses as a scholar, she writes vignettes about ordinary persons' lives. She doesn't write much about people in her own socio-economic class (academics) but about less well-educated and -heeled people in West Virginia, Texas, Nevada, like the man she goes to a diner with who confesses that he doesn't know what a "D" looks like (and wants to marry her). There are a lot of trailer park stories here, and over-heard diner conversations, and travel narratives gone bad. There is a lot of suffering here, even when ironies are registered. Many of these ironies have to do with Stewart's position as participant-observer: "The 'we' incites participation and takes on a life of its own, even reflecting its own presence." The reflection isn't always pretty.


Nor is the world she observes. It's a sad and pained world of under-employed, over-reactive, and put-upon people. It's a community, but one that is relentlessly falling apart. It's telling that one of her finest meditations on community has to do with self-wounding. She's quoting Alphonso Lingis, who describes the workers in a mine at the Arctic Circle. The first miner he sees puts out a cigarette on his own hand, which is covered with scar tissue. Then Lingis sees that other miners carry scar tissue on their hands. Lingis refers to this scarring as "'the fraternity signaled by the burning cigarettes.'" Stewart notes this sign of "collective identity" as "an extreme trajectory." And then notes a leap from the observer as solitary to something larger: "Ordinary affects highlight the question of the intimate impacts of forces in circultation. They're not exactly 'personal' but they sure can pull the subject into places it didn't exactly 'intend' to go." The "not exactly personal" involves, if not a community formed between observer and observed, then at least a moment of recognition and empathy.


Is this yet a politics? Stewart thinks so, but in typically halting fashion. "There's a politics to being/feeling connected (or not), to impacts that are shared (or not), to energies spent worrying or scheming (or not), to affective contagion, and to all the forms of attunement and attachment. There's a politics to ways of watching and waiting for something to happen and to forms of agency" [.] This is not a politics for miners, but for writers. While that is not the politics one might wish for, one that joins intellectuals with workers, it still has import. It acknowledges what we cannot do, even as it suggests there's a role for us to play. As a recent tweet on my feed (more or less) reads, "we don't want white people to act black, but we want them to support us." Part of the meditation's contingency is this awareness that you can see something without trying to make it your own. Meditative practice does not appropriate.


The problem with this politics is its virtue. It's rooted in the present, in presence, rather than in a possible future. Stewart's vignettes are more symptom than promise. She knows that. Toward the end of her book she writes: "This is no utopia. Not a challenge to be achieved or an ideal to be realized, but a mode of attunement, a continuous responding to something not quite already given and yet somehow happening." When I sent a recent small book of my poems, many of them about the homeless I see on O`ahu, to a friend, she suggested I make them into a public project. To the extent that I sometimes wave signs (HOUSING NOW) or testify before the City Council, my practice is public. But the writing is what Stewart calls "attunement." It represents a self-fashioning such as that Montaigne describes: "The conduct of our lives is the true reflection of our thoughts." May that be so.


"But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming in consciousness," writes  Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son (and to us) in Between the World and Me. "Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live--and there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else's country, but in your own home." He meditates on the life and the awful death (at the hands of police) of his college friend, Prince Jones: "That was the love power that drew Prince Jones. The power is not divinity but a deep knowledge of how fragile everything--even the Dream, especially the Dream--really is." Coates's sense that life's fragility is part of what makes it beautiful is one that I want to hold to. That doesn't mean we don't try to make the world better, but it does mean that we (yes, the collective pronoun) can't afford to give up. But we also need to give in to the world. "Pay attention!" as Stewart writes (doubtingly, as always). The cat's rummaging in the closet; I need to shoo her out.


Ta-Nahisi Coates, Between the World and Me. NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

Michel de Montaigne, Essays. Trans. J.M. Cohen. London: Penguin Books, 1958.

Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke UP, 2007.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Meditation: On the Elegy as a Political Act

Brandon Shimoda was in St. Louis yesterday for the one year anniversary of Michael Brown's death. He posted three photographs of the memorial constructed on Canfield Drive in Ferguson at the place where Brown died and his body was left for hours. (See @brandonshimoda). His photographs are close-ups; unless you read the caption, you don't know where you are on this earth. What you see are legions of stuffed animals. I don't know my Disney or Muppets iconography at all well, but it's their characters I see piled on top of one another, a plastic red fire truck placed neatly in front of them. Here is the first of his photos:

And here is a second photograph:


Michael Brown was 18 years old. He had just graduated from high school and was headed to community college when he was killed violently. What does it mean that his memorial is covered by stuffed animals, drowning in the symbolism of "the happiest place on earth" and other American fantasy lands? Is this a memorial to Michael Brown's childhood? To ours? Does it cover over (literally) the stain of American adulthood, with its worship of guns and violence? Does the memorial take us from the day of his death to an eternal childhood, where we feel safe, if only in our imaginations? Is that a cheap form of transcendence, like some versions of the Romantic lyric beheld from the vantage point of 2015? The toys represent an odd form of happiness, one that seems quite at odds with an actual place in Ferguson, MO. In an email, Brandon tells me that many of the stuffed animals bear the name of someone killed by police. I can't handle the symbolism. There is nothing more powerless than a stuffed animal, nothing more childlike. A 12-year old was arrested this evening in St. Louis. She said she was scared. Now we're told, via Twitter, that she's 18. But she's very small, standing in her handcuffs, and the cops are large.

This is only the latest iteration of the Michael Brown memorial, which over the past year has been taken away, run over, desecrated, then re-made. Shimoda's is a particular angle on the latest memorial, a claustrophobic one that does not give its place away. Another view, posted on August 4, comes from a Google Earth capture. Because Google Earth changes so often, such "captures" are necessary to preserve visual histories. I found this photograph via a discussion by Seph Rodney. Originally posted by Jessica Lussenhop, it looks like this:

This odd angle, which makes the roads and parking lot resemble nothing so much as a swastika, tells us the street name (because that is what's important on Google Earth) and shows us a ribbon running down the center of Canfield, along with a memorial pile under a tree next to the road, beside a parking lot, where a man with white shoes stands facing the street (I think). There are three people under the tree at the tree memorial who look toward the man in white shoes. We see them from above as tiny lines, not as human beings. Lussenhop insists in her tweet that the memorial "lives on." What does it mean to "live on" as a screen capture off the ever-changing Google Earth? This photograph seems more a memorial to the street, or even to Google Earth itself, than to Michael Brown. It has nothing to do with childhood, and like the photographs at closer range, seems to have nothing to do with Michael Brown himself. In some sense, these are memorials to the idea of memorials, how they occupy a landscape.

As I write this, I go to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on-line. I read that paper often, at least during baseball season. It's the day after the first anniversary of Brown's death. A man was shot by under cover police last night in Ferguson. A state of emergency has been proclaimed. Cornel West sits in the front of the photograph of protesters in front of the Federal Building in St. Louis; a policeman stands, his back to the camera. People are getting arrested. The St. Louis County Executive states that, "The recent acts of violence will not be tolerated in a community that has worked so tirelessly over the last year to rebuild and become stronger," that, "The time and investment in Ferguson and Dellwood will not be destroyed by a few that wish to violate the rights of others." But these words don't align with the peaceful and silent protesters pictured to the left of the column where he is quoted. People are sitting, still as a memorial to the dead, on a sidewalk. They are not stuffed animals; they are adults whose faces radiate pain and stoicism. We see them around the fulsome back-side of a policeman who lacks a face, but carries plastic cuffs and other paraphernalia of physical restraint. Order must be maintained.

I recently participated in a project called Lament for the Dead (see lamentforthedead.org), organized by Carey Wallace. The website publishes a poem for everyone killed by police this summer, as well as for every policeman killed. The page is black with white print, like a gravestone or like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Each poet is given a few hours to compose a poem based on a news report about the death. Many of the dead lack names, either at first, or even later on. They are the unknown soldiers in this crazy war. My young man (22) came first without a name. When I googled him (Google Death, not Earth), he turned into Charles Bertram of El Paso, Texas, killed by police outside a sports bar after allegedly drawing a weapon. His mother was not told why he was shot; his "baby mom" was threatened by detectives (his mother said). If she did not cooperate, they would destroy his property. It all comes down to property, doesn't it? Or the sick kind of propriety that America demands of its citizens. The poem itself offered a kind of property (he was my subject) and propriety (there was a form to fill in, that of the elegy). The elegy is a form of order, too, a genre of restraint. The power of Allen Ginsburg's "Kaddish" is its breaking of restraint, decorum, its emotional violence. And its use of detail.

The elegy has more than one lens, a short one and a long one, a panoramic and a microscopic one. We see the little red truck and we see the larger geometry of the street. Pull back farther and you see the circumstances that made the tragedy possible, even inevitable in our historical context. But the elegies I teach, those that are in some way canonical, are less about details than about general principles. The athlete who died young, memorialized by A.E. Housman, ran down a street, but we don't know its name; the subject of Hart Crane's "Praise for an Urn" was like Pierrot and Gargantua, but was not either of them. If the elegy is an engine of meaning, then the engine tends to run very hot and quick, from material body to substanceless stars. But a book like Eleni Sikelianos's The Book of Jon, written mostly in prose, concentrates on detail, the materials in her late father's possession when he died of a drug overdose in a hotel room. The details tend at first to turn my students off. Cigarettes, combs, not much more than that. The details are pathetic and, until you point out their pathos, they do not lend themselves to an empathetic reading. He was a drug abuser, after all, and if the War on Drugs did anything, it was to make drug abusers seem like lesser souls.

The poems on the Lament for the Dead website oscillate between detail (they are usually based on a single news report) and the desire to memorialize an entire life. How can a writer move from a violent detail (he had knife, he was shot in the back, there was blood on the street) back into the life of someone he or she never knew? The writers are in no way associated even with the place in which the event occurred (I was struck by the fact that a woman who lives in Rock Island, Illinois wrote about an unnamed man killed by police in Kahului on Maui, for example). They tend not to share the race or gender or age of the victims. So, poets reach for validation in a lyrical gesture toward meaning. A lot of the meaning emerges from not-knowing. Elizabeth Robinson: "That you had a name but left your name behind / where we cannot find it." Rachel Kubie: "but he was unnamed, / wandering at night with his shining youth / with foreign currency in his pocket / threats and greetings on his lips / and the river of night to cross"[.] The elegy mourns that not-knowing, even as it tries to arrive at the life at the point it was lost. It's a difficult feeling, this trying to know, but having no way to know, or indeed to feel. Elegists always have the mystery of death in front of them, but the mystery of life takes over many of these poems.

So what is the meaning of the mystery, when there is so little evidence of a life? Housman had a type (the athlete, who did athletic things); Shelley had his friend Keats (who died, in part, of a bad review, or so we're told); Sikelianos had her father, whom she had not known well. But at least she had photographs, a few stray memories, people to interview. At least can be very small, but at least there's that. Many of the elegies here, like Norman Fischer's, repeat the "facts" of the case, then open out, as the soul enters the world unbodied. Others use whatever facts could be found, as in Erika Staiti's elegy for Christian Taylor, an unarmed black man (19) killed at a car dealership in Texas a few days ago. Of Taylor she writes: "Young and unarmed and black and / a homicide—your cause of death: / gunshot wounds to the neck, chest and abdomen." Of his killer: "Miller had no previous police experience, / no disciplinary history or commendations." She includes this detail in a poem that looks very much like poem, running in tercets down the page until we arrive at haunting words by the dead man himself: “I don’t wanna die / too younggggg.” Jaimie Gusman Nagle writes about a man who suffered mental illness, Michael Westrich, 59, of Beaverton, Oregon. She begins by imagining Westrich's thoughts on that day:

Big Mike
might have thought of his time

in Santa Barbara, how the fog
made his breath feel less

like a wound, and more
like a bloodless river

and then leaps into the personal pronoun: "I’ve also felt buried alive." The I belongs maybe to the poet, certainly to a character in her poem. This I possesses the empathy of shared anomie, a difficult sharing. Hers is one of the few poems that makes so direct a link between the victim and poet or speaker. The word "might" is the hinge on which this poem opens. He might have thought something; someone who calls herself I might have felt something similar. It's a frail hinge, probably lacking a couple of screws, but there's light on the other side of that door.

The elegies on this website tend toward the conventional, by which I mean they are poems that lament the particular dead and try to find meaning in that death. They do not make direct political statements, unless to note that so many of these deaths occur in similar circumstances. And in passing. Empathy is a politics, yes, the primary politics to be found here. But there are no calls to the barricades, no calling out of the police, very few references to the American worship of guns. It's an oddly apolitical political place. Yet by way of accumulation, day after day after day of deaths, mostly at the hands of police, the reader cannot help but arrive, by way of inductive reasoning, at one conclusion only. Our society is sick. We kill each other at an alarming rate. The police kill black men and the mentally ill of all races out of proportion to anyone else. The website becomes a memorial of memorials, each poem piled on the last as if left on a dark street. If elegy comes inevitably of subtraction, the accretion of elegies makes of those subtractions a horrifying addition problem. The poems repeat and repeat and repeat. Such repetition is not in itself a political action, but drives us to realize its necessity. The details more than suggest an institution; they demand its dismantling.

Brandon Shimoda writes me to question the bringing together of the dead killed by police and the police killed in the line of duty. He wonders if there is not a mistaken equivalency here. If there is, I would say that it is a lyrical equivalency. We mourn the dead not for their morality, but for their being dead. If we believe in the precious human body of Buddhism, then all bodies should be mourned, because their existences have not come to an end. This is bad racial politics, but a good spiritual practice. And how do we reconcile that? With anger (justified, deep, destructive, and perhaps constructive) or with forgiveness (counter-intuitive, like that offered to the murderer in Charleston by his victims' survivors). Again, good politics or good spiritual practice? Is there a way to link them? I would say that the Lament for the Dead website has chosen the lyric's emphasis on the individual, but a possibility remains that in the addition of all these lyrics, a practical politics can arise. Such politics involves the dismantling of institutions, but also asks us to see each other as like each other. Some days, many days, that seems the most difficult act of all.

The Michael Brown memorial is one such act of addition and repetition. The memorial is not stable. It began with a line of roses and the tree, which was vandalized; it is now a pile of stuffed animals. There is, as yet, no name on Michael Brown's grave, just a piece of plywood with "RIP MB" scrawled across it. The point of these elegies might be that there is no name because there are so many. There are (and I cringe to write this) the celebrity dead whose stories we have heard over and again on the television. But most of the dead are anonymous, mostly because we haven't heard their stories. Just iterations and re-iterations of a particular kind of horror that is intimately tied to American history. I can imagine so many black men, escaped from slavery, hunted down and then returned to slavery or shot dead. I can imagine those men lynched. I can see Charles Bertram, 22, shot and killed on Dyer Ave. in El Paso Texas, and I can also see (on television) his mother saying that no one at the hospital would tell her why he was shot. History is a terrible echo chamber. We need to act from within its trauma, and without grieving we are paralyzed.

Here is my poem, revised a bit, using the form of the Craigslist "missed connections" sites:

Craigslist Missed Connection

(in memorium. Charles Bertram)

You were the guy in parentheses: “There was a foot pursuit and the officer followed (the man).” Your family could not be reached for comment, but the reporter's number is 546-6102. We might have met at the Players' bar near the strip mall downtown, but the newspaper photos are of a gas station off Dyer Road. There's yellow tape around the pumps, a dull silver car three or four rows down, and a lit-up cop cruiser in front of the ice machine (10 lbs. bags). What is the city over the mountains / Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

You were the occupant of the car with the gun, or so the officer told reporters. On the police department website I read that, “the preservation of life [is] our sacred duty. Our value of human life set our priorities.” They are not releasing “any of that” right now. (Hence, more generally) an afterthought, an explanatory aside.

You lived near Fort Bliss, held by the Confederacy from 1861-1862, in the city that soon expects more military personnel and a bigger airfield. You were the guy in the city whose theater was recently refurbished (for $38 million) and whose new freeway heralds urban sprawl. Ringed by the flat horizon only You were the guy in a car who'd been in jail 18 times since 2011 for lacking a license, for driving under the influence, for having no insurance. You were 22 years old.

You were (the man) who collapsed near the sports bar and was pronounced dead. My son pronounces “dead” “did.” It was someone's deed, but not for car or house. No one would tell your mother at the hospital why you'd been shot. “The detective told my son's baby mom that if she did not cooperate, they were going to burn all of his property.” What did you have on you? That license, some photos, a few bucks, a can of beer, maybe the gun you're alleged to have fired?

You were the man whose sister asked God on TV to bless you and let you rest in peace, whose girlfriend it must have been standing next to your mother between the road and a high metal fence, their eyes walled with pain. What is that sound high in the air / Murmur of maternal lamentation

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London El Paso
All too real

Traci Blackmon, a UCC minister in St. Louis, writes on her facebook page this evening:
"I live in a place where federal buildings go on lock down when people come to report a national threat...county jails shut down to keep citizens out when there is no threat...and a county executive who does not have the authority to declare a state of emergency...does...and no one says a word.
This is my reality."


Language from “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, various news reports, the Oxford English Dictionary and websites, including Wikipedia.


Susan M. Schultz is a poet professor who lives on O'ahu and runs Tinfish Press.