The radio clicks on—it’s poor swollen America,
Up already and busy selling the exhausting obligation
Of happiness while intermittently debating whether or not
A man who kills fifty people in five minutes
With an automatic weapon he has bought for the purpose
Is mentally ill. Or a terrorist. Or if terrorists
Are mentally ill. Because if killing large numbers of people
With sophisticated weapons is a sign of sickness—
You might want to begin with fire, our early ancestors
Drawn to the warmth of it—Complete poem available online at American Poetry Review
In December 2017, Beacon Press published Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, an anthology of poems – including this one by a former US Poet Laureate – and citizen responses touching on the subject of guns in America.
The poem takes a sweeping historical view of our fascination with guns, starting with the first time someone in prehistory discovered “some sands that, / Tossed into the fire, burned blue or flared green”, to the myth of Prometheus, to Rome and medieval Europe and the Age of Exploration – “How did guns come to North America?” – and the Civil War and all the wars since then, right up to June 2016 when:
They were dancing in Orlando, in a club. Spring night.
Gay Pride. The relation of the total casualties to the history
Of the weapon that sent exploded metal into their bodies—
30 rounds a minute, or 40, is a beautifully made instrument,
And in America you can buy it anywhere—and into the history
Of the shaming culture that produced the idea of Gay Pride—
They were mostly young men, they were dancing in a club,
A spring night. The radio clicks on. Green fire. Blue fire.
The immense flocks of terrified birds still rising
In wave after wave above the waters in the dream time.
Crying out sharply. As the French ship breasted the vast interior
Of the new land. America. A radio clicks on. The Arabs,
A commentator is saying, require a heavy hand. Dancing.
It’s a longish poem, three pages of free verse in uniform lines (one of those poems that makes me wonder why it’s a poem instead of prose), that maintains a momentum by repetition of tropes like the sands thrown into the fire, the blue and green sparks, looking back at the beginning while moving to the present. There’s a video of Hass doing an informal reading of the poem in the office of a Miami Dade professor; he repeats the line “they threw powder in the fire” at the end although that isn’t included in the APR published version. It’s this simple act, this fascination with the sparks unleashed by burning certain minerals, that connects us with those imagined paleolithic wonderers, traces the fires of Prometheus, whose liver was eaten every day by birds but grew back each night to allow another day of torment. There are days in contemporary America when it doesn’t seem like punishment enough.
As I read this poem, I realized how tired I am of the tributes and memorials – or rather, tired of the need for them – and how I wish some day they will be part of history instead of everyday life.