Day four of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life:
What Do We Do—Now
by Ellen Hagan
—after Gwendolyn Brooks
We mourn, we bless,
we blow, we wail, we
wind—down, we sip,
we spin, we blind, we
bend, bow & hem. We
hip, we blend, we bind,
we shake, we shine,
shine. We lips & we
teeth, we praise & protest.
We document & we
drama. We demand &
we flow, fold & hang
loose. We measure &
we moan, mourn & whine
low. & we live, and we
breathe. & some of the time,
Tonight, I am here. Here
& tired. Here & awake,
sure, & alive. Yes here &
still, still here, still & here
& still awake & still still
Most of us read Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” in high school, and if your education was like mine, the lens through which we read it was her use of the vernacular—
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Reading it again after so many years, my focus is pulled to the last lines, and I shudder. All the life in the poem, all the bragging, all the rhythm and it just comes down to one thing: We/die soon.
Poet Ellen Hagan riffs on Brooks’ poem in “What We Do—Now.” Hagan’s poem is written in an aftermath. The aftermath of loss. Perhaps the aftermath of the deaths in Brooks’ poems. The poem’s title “What We Do—Now” can be read as a question born of exhaustion and grief. What do we do now?
The list that follows is exhausting, a litany of thirty-one verbs (and some nouns used as verbs) in the long, rapid-fire first stanza. Mourning is listed twice. Mourning is driving all the other activity.
The second stanza takes a breath. It’s enough, the speaker suggests, just to be alive at this moment, to breathe, to be awake, to survive.
I go back to these lines
. . . and we
breathe. & some of the time,
and I think of George Floyd trying to breathe and Eric Garner trying to breathe and all the men and women we’ve never heard of who were just trying to breathe. And our collective breath as a nation, as a world, ragged now and anxious, wishing that simple act could not be taken away from the powerless.
Ellen Hagan is a writer, educator, activist and performer. She lives in New York City where she directs the poetry program at the DreamYard Project.
Note: I was wrong when I said on the first day of this project that there would probably never be a protest in this peaceable park. One was beginning just as I left.
It was the second day of protest for these young people, and they were expecting dozens more to arrive. Later that evening a protest march gathered at City Hall to walk to Woodward Boulevard, the artery connecting the city of Detroit to its tonier suburbs.
Found this on my walk home—
Thank you dear Ellen. We need to remember George Floyd and ensure this never happen again.
Reblogged this on johncoyote and commented:
Needed words for today.
Thank you so much for these achingly spot-on posts. I am around poetry daily, committed Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact” to heart, but I look forward to these poems and commentary daily.
Pam, thanks for directing me to this great poem. Wow. I love it. Reprinting it just in case anyone gets this far down in the comments . . .
A Small Needful Fact
by Ross Gay
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.