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 Hawa─▒̒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."

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.