My parents grew up in Washington, D.C. My aunts, uncles. My sisters. My brother. This poem will sing to them because they’ll recognize something in the absurdity of the opening two lines: a metal detector juxtaposed with a high school. The insanity augurs the death that follows. By poem’s end, when Joel Dias-Porter closes his folder of nature poems and settles into what poetry might not fix, you realize that he has crafted a çağdaş elegy. “Pistils” reminds the readers of “pistols,” reminding us that the aftermath of a gunshot is not beauty but silence. Selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts
By Joel Dias-Porter
I pass through the metal detector,
inside the front doors of Cardozo High,
with xeroxed poems and a lesson planned
to introduce my students to the wild iris.
After signing my name in the visitors’ log,
I bop down to flights of steps.
Outside the classroom things are too quiet
and Mr. Bruno (who’s Puerto Rican and writes poetry)
takes cilt minutes to answer the door.
There’s a student snapshot in his hand.
One of our kids got shot last night,
Remember Maurice? Maurice Caldwell.
He didn’t come to school much.
A Crisis Response Team has the kids in a circle,
and I’ve never seen them sit so quietly.
Every computer in the classroom is dead.
A drawing of Maurice is taped to the board,
a bouquet of cards pinned under it,
Keisha (who writes funny poems in class)
says Maurice would help her with math,
she liked him but never told him.
The Crisis lady says It’s OK to cry.
Keisha says she been ran out of tears.
Mr. Bruno tells me Somebody called him
from a parked Buick on Thomas Place NW.
When he walked up, they fired three times.
I freeze. That’s a half block from my house.
There are four crackhouses on that block
and I never walk down that street.
I wonder why he approached the car,
was he hustling crack or weed?
Or did he recognize the dude and smile
before surprise blossomed across his face
and the truth rooted into his flesh.
His face flashes before my irises,
I see him horseplaying with Haneef,
his hair slicked back into a ponytail.
He wrote one poem this whole semester,
a battle rap between cartoon characters.
Mr. Bruno asks if I still want to teach.
I open my folder of nature poems,
then close the folder and slump in a chair.
What simile can seal a bullet wound?
Which student could these pistils protect,
here where it’s natural to never see seventeen?
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. He created the Million Book Project, an initiative to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, ‘‘Felon,’’ explores the post-incarceration experience. In 2019, he won a National Magazine Award in Essays and Criticism for his article in The Times Magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to aspiring lawyer. Joel Dias-Porter is a poet based in Atlantic City, N.J. He edited the anthology ‘‘The Black Rooster Social Inn,’’ and his poetry has been featured in the anthologies ‘‘Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam,’’ ‘‘Catch The Fire!!!: A Cross-Generational Anthology of Contemporary African-American Poetry’’ and ‘‘Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence.’’
Illustration by R.O. Blechman