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The ninth day commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life.

 

I Want to Breathe

by James Laughlin

 

I want to breathe

 

you in I’m not talking about

perfume or even the sweet odour

 

of your skin but of the

air itself I want to share

 

your air inhaling what you

exhale I’d like to be that

 

close two of us breathing

each other as one as that

 

 

 

“I Want to Breathe” is a love poem, one I’ve featured before in a less fraught context. I’m featuring it again to close out this series not just because the title and the first line echo Floyd’s last words (“I can’t breathe”) but because it is a love poem. A poem to remember that George Floyd was not just a man murdered by police but a man who was loved in his lifetime by his family and friends; a man loved after his death by millions the world over; a man whose life and death inspires love between people united in outrage and grief.

 

And so here is a poem of breath shared from one person to another, an expression of a desire to be loving and close. We are born for connection. We live in shared space. We share earth. We share air. Deep within we want to share ourselves.

 

I want to share

 

your air inhaling what you

exhale I’d like to be that

 

close two of us breathing

each other as one as that

 

The law of the conservation of matter tells us that matter can transform but never disappear. Our air—made of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, and sometimes water vapors—is ancient. The air we breathe now is the same air our ancestors breathed. The same air as our neighbors breathe. The same as our enemies. It’s possible the very air George Floyd exhaled in his last moments was inhaled by those who murdered him.

 

Maybe there is redemption in that for them.

 

*

 

A brief memoriam for our fellow breather on planet Earth:

 

George Perry Floyd (1973-2020), born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, raised in a Houston housing project. Called “Perry” by his family. Played basketball and football in high school, recruited to play basketball for South Florida State College, transferred to Texas A&M to play basketball, dropped out. Had a brief music career as rapper “Big Floyd.” Worked as a car customizer. Mentored young men from the housing project he grew up in. Went to church. Struggled with addiction. Went to jail. Started over in Minneapolis. Drove trucks, worked for the Salvation Army, worked security at a nightclub. Lost his job because of coronavirus shutdowns. Got coronavirus himself. Read the bible. Prayed with his roommates. A six-foot six-inch tall man known for his hugs and his jokes. Over and over described as a “gentle giant.” A kind man, a caring man. A loving man. A man who fell, got up, tried again, fell, got up, fell. Was crushed.

 

A man who had his mother’s name tattooed on his chest. A man who loved his mother and was loved by his mother.

 

A man who is described by his girlfriend this way:  “He stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away.” A man his childhood friend Meshah Hawkins describes as a “sweetie pie.” A sweetie pie.

 

Rest in peace, sweetie pie. Rest in peace, gentle giant. Rest in peace, George Perry Floyd.

 

 

*

 

Two friends described this nine-day project as a novena (a novena is nine days of repeated prayers for an urgent petition), and so it’s only fitting to end with a poem that is also a prayer. My sister forwarded me this one. It’s written by a rising sophomore at Gonzaga, a Jesuit high school in Washington, D.C. located less than a mile from the Capitol building. [Gonzaga is also home to one of the first poets I featured on this blog, legendary English teacher Rick Cannon, who retired this spring.] In “Prayer for Change” young poet Richard Scott writes movingly of his hope for permanent change. Thank you, Richard! Keep on writing.

 

 

I left “Prayer for Change” on the opposite side of “I Want to Breathe.” The two poems flank a statue named “The Freedom of the Human Spirit.”

 

 

Prayer for Change

by Richard Scott

 

I pray for healing in Ferguson

I pray for healing in Minneapolis

I pray for healing in New York

I pray for healing in Baltimore

 

I pray that we will continue to run for Ahmaud

I pray that we will blast our music for Jordan

I pray that we will continue to kneel with Kap

I pray that the police stop killing us

 

I pray that 911 is a beacon of safety, not death

I pray the next time my hands are raised it’s in a classroom

I pray that the voices of the unheard are amplified

I pray that the color of my skin won’t get me killed

 

I pray that Martin’s dream doesn’t become a nightmare

I pray that Rosa’s bravery isn’t blinded by cowards

I pray that Maya’s words are never erased

I pray for change

 

 

*

Note:  Last night as I taped the final two poems to the marble orbs in Shain Park, all but the first two poems were still there. Edges curled, some faded, but still hanging on.

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The final two poems of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life will shift from poems of protest to poems of solidarity.

 

*

 

Day eight, minute eight. We are near the end. He lays silent and still in the street. He is alone, he is in this moment friendless, he has no one to hold his hand or comfort him or gaze upon him with love as he breathes his last. It is a horror.

 

*

 

 

Only Breath

by Rumi

 

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu

Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

 

or cultural system. I am not from the East

or the West, not out of the ocean or up

 

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not

composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

 

am not an entity in this world or in the next,

did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

 

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace

of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

 

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two

worlds as one and that one call to and know,

 

first, last, outer, inner, only that

breath breathing human being.

 

 

 

I’m drawn to this poem more than I really understand it. There’s balm here, a resting spot to breathe calmly as we take in a world where a black man, as so many before him, was denied the right to breathe, who begged another man to let him breathe.

 

In this time of division, with so many people aching to rid the world of division and the injustice and pain division brings, Rumi wipes the slate clean. There is a reality beyond division, he says. Beyond the division of religion and country of origin. He just as easily could be talking about divisions of ethnicity, skin tone, political party, social class.

 

This reality exists even beyond the divisions between species and between beings from this world and the next.

 

It’s the reality of being beloved. Of existing in a state of being loved.

 

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two

worlds as one

 

We are the beloved, all of us, and every last atom of creation. And if you don’t believe in a loving creative entity, there is still the fact of love itself, the fact that it has always existed and always will, the miracle of it, the power of it.

 

I stop here with the poem because I can’t understand the last lines about the breath and I keep hearing John Donne in my ear—

 

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

 

Emphasis mine. Going to repeat it.

 

any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

 

*

 

A biography of Rumi from a previous post:

Rumi, born to a wealthy family in 1207, eventually settled in modern day Turkey.  He wrote over 70,000 verses in 25 years or, as I figure, about 7 ½ poems every day.  A religious figure, he is considered a Muslim saint.  His staying power comes not only from the beauty and emotional expressiveness of his poems, but his teachings of tolerance and peace.  He’s such towering figure of interfaith unity that Pope John XXIII was moved to say in 1958, “In the name of the Catholic World, I bow with respect before the memory of Rumi.”

 

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Day seven of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life.

 

 

America

by Claude McKay

 

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,

Giving me strength erect against her hate,

Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.

Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

 

 

Sonnets are elegant and sturdy things, holding in all manner of ideas and imagery safely behind glass, the curio cabinet of poetry forms. Claude McKay’s “America” uses the sonnet’s tidy structure to carry his righteous anger and the load nearly causes a collapse.

 

The racism in America that McKay encountered after emigrating from Jamaica shocked him, stealing my breath of life, as he says in this poem. He calls America a cultured hell, a beast intent on killing him with her tiger’s tooth. Still and all, he loves the bigness and energy of his adopted country and feels no terror, malice, not a word of jeer towards it. Which is why the turn he makes at the end of this sonnet comes as a shock—

 

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand

 

I can’t read that without thinking about another sonnet, Shelley’s “Ozymandius” —

 

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

So goes, we hope, we pray, the way of boastful, abusive power. Into the sands of time, wrecked and buried.

 

*

 

Claude McKay (1889-1948) was born in Jamaica, the youngest of seven in a family of farmers. He began writing poetry early, under the encouragement of an older brother.

 

After apprenticing as a cabinetmaker in Jamaica and finding success with poems written in a Jamaican dialect, he moved to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute. He left after two months, disliking the militarism and segregation he found there, and transferred to Kansas State University. He studied agriculture for two years and then moved to New York, working as a bartender, longshoreman and waiter. He briefly married his high school sweetheart, with whom he had one daughter.

 

Mckay was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and his poem “If We Must Die” is sometimes considered the movement’s inaugural poem. Besides poetry, McKay wrote four novels, a collection of short stories, two memoirs and a non-fiction history of Harlem.

 

A bisexual, McKay was an early advocate of gay rights and acceptance. He visited the Soviet Union several times, leading to him becoming the first black writer tracked by the FBI. Later he would renounce Communism and the repression it bred. In the last ten years of his life he became an American citizen and a Catholic convert. He moved to Chicago to work for a Catholic service organization and died a few years later of died of congestive heart failure at age 58.

 

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Day six of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life. The sixth minute is when Floyd became unresponsive.

 

Still I Rise

by Maya Angelou

 

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

 

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

 

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

 

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own backyard.

 

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

 

 

The first verse of this poem is so famous it might as well be tattooed on our national conscious. It’s that perfect. I could re-read it a hundred times and it would never fail to give pleasure.

 

The rest of the poem is less familiar but no less quotable. Verse after verse Angelou rolls through barriers, growing in stature and strength like a super hero batting off bullets and punches and ramming cars and speeding trains.

 

(Angelou always seemed ahead of her time, and here, decades before Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candle, Angelou claims the right of women to boast of their reproductive parts just as men do—

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

But that’s not the point of this post. I just really like that verse.)

 

Her fierce faith in herself, in her people, in the tide of history speaks to this moment like no other, and I pray describes George Floyd’s life after death—

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

 

*

A [very long because her life is so interesting] biography from a previous post:

 

Maya Angelou was born in 1928 in St. Louis, but after her parents’ divorce when she was 3 or 4, was sent to live in Arkansas with her grandmother. Over the years she was shuffled back and forth between her mother and grandmother, eventually landing in San Francisco. During one of the visits with her mother, when she was 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She confided in her brother, who told the family. The rapist was sent to jail, released after a day, and then murdered, reportedly by Angelou’s uncles. After his murder, Angelou stopped speaking. She blamed her speaking out for his death.

 

With the help of a teacher, the appropriately named Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Angelou started speaking four or five years later. And then her life took off. She became San Francisco’s first African American female streetcar driver while still in high school. She gave birth at 17 to a boy, and worked as a waitress and cook to support herself and her child. She married a white man, a Greek sailor and musician, despite the difficulties of interracial marriage at the time. She studied dance under Martha Graham, and formed a dance partnership with Alvin Ailey before he became famous.

 

She sang and danced at a nightclub. She recorded a Calypso album in 1957 and wrote and performed in an off-Broadway review called Calypso HeatWave and later a film based on that show. She toured Europe in Porgy and Bess. As she traveled, she taught herself the language of every country she visited. She was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and a West African language called Fanti.

 

In 1959 she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, befriending James Baldwin who became her mentor. Upon hearing Dr. Martin Luther King speak, she became an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.51.49 PMIn 1961 she performed in a Jean Genet play, The Blacks, along with legendary actors Cicely Tyson, Lou Gossett, James Earl Jones. She moved to Cairo with her son, where she worked as an editor at an English language newspaper, and on to Ghana where she served as an administrator at a university.

 

Angelou was devastated by the assassinations of her close friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Shortly after she produced a 10-part documentary on the blues.

 

She wrote the first of her seven autobiographies in 1969 (the last one published when she was 83), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She wrote a screenplay, she wrote soundtracks, she acted in the television mini-series Roots and several other shows, she wrote music for singer Roberta Flack (listen here) and B.B. King (and here). She gave the inaugural poem for President Clinton, the first poet to do so since Robert Frost spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration. In 1996 she directed a feature film with Wesley Snipes. Along the way she published cookbooks, earned over 50 honorary degrees and awards–a Tony, an Emmy and the National Medal of Freedom among them–and in her last few months worked on the posthumous album I mentioned earlier.

 

Her biography is exhausting. A lifetime of nonstop creativity. She died in 2014 at age 86.

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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,

we don’t.

 

Tonight, I am here. Here

& tired. Here & awake,

sure, & alive. Yes here &

still, still here, still & here

& still awake & still still

alive.

 

 

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

Die soon.

 

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,

we don’t.

 

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—

 

 

 

 

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Day two, commemorating the second minute of the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

Let Them Not Say

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Let them not say:   we did not see it.

We saw.

 

Let them not say:   we did not hear it.

We heard.

 

Let them not say:    they did not taste it.

We ate, we trembled.

 

Let them not say:   it was not spoken, not written.

We spoke,

we witnessed with voices and hands.

 

Let them not say:    they did nothing.

We did not-enough.

 

Let them say, as they must say something:

 

A kerosene beauty.

It burned.

 

Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,

read by its light, praised,

and it burned.

 

 

Instead of we came, we saw, we conquered, poet Jane Hirshfield posits a different course:  we saw, we heard, we tasted, we witnessed, and we did not-enough. Admitting failure instead of bragging about conquest. That’s the way forward.

 

Today at the square the poem I left yesterday had been removed. And it rained last night so today’s poem is probably gone as well. But I hope at least some of the people in the park wondered what I was doing and read the poems after I left.

 

 

 

A brief biography of Hirshfield from an earlier post:

Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years. She’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.

 

 

 

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