Hard Poems for Hard Times

In the last few weeks my emotions have been all over the place. At first I was sad. This story is not a new story. They have been killing us without consequence for hundreds of years. Then I began looking at the way these events were portrayed in the media, and reading the comments beneath the news stories, and I became angry. These people had families, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children. They shot Philando Castile with his baby in the backseat.

Now I am scared. This thing could get worse before it gets better, and I am afraid for my family. My brother and my cousins and their children. Wrong cop, wrong city, wrong day, and we have a new hashtag. Folks will post pictures online, and voice their support on social media, then the trial comes and nothing happens. How do you feel safe in a country that through its inaction declares it ok to kill you?

I grew up in a very religious household. When things went wrong, we read scripture. In our prayers, we often invoked scripture, reciting it verbatim when we ran out of our own words to pray. It was a comforting reminder that no matter what was going on in our world, we were not alone. The practice of turning to words for comfort in time of trouble for me isn’t exclusive to scripture. In the last few days these are the poems that have given me the most comfort, poems that let me know that someone out there understands.

Jericho Brown “Bullet Points”
In “Bullet Points,” the speaker tells the audience that if he is found dead, the police did it. It hit home for me because it seems like in all of these incidents, there are two stories, the official story and what we can all see on the video. There is a press conference with an explanation of “what the tape doesn’t show.” The speaker in this poem reminds us not to trust the official story.

Read it here.

Jacqueline Woodson “what everybody knows now”
In “what everybody knows now”, the speaker discusses riding the bus with her grandmother and heading to the back even though it is legal now for us to sit wherever we want to. It struck me because I once worked in a little town in Kentucky. When I asked a black co-worker about where to get some barbeque she mentioned a restaurant that “we” don’t go in. If I wanted to eat there, she told me I should order take out. It’s funny how the law says one thing, and the culture says something else.

Read it here.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, “When I think of Tamar Rice While Driving”
The speaker in “When I Think of Tamar Rice While Driving” contemplates his own children in the context of these police killings. I don’t have children, but I worry about the ones I will have one day. What kind of world will I be bringing them into? And then I think about my students. I spent a few years teaching alternative school in Mississippi, so many bright young black men that have come through my classroom have graduated to jail cells. Even as kids they knew the system was rigged. Then I think that maybe they were the lucky ones. If they are in jail, then they are still alive.

Read it here.

Claude Mckay, “America”
In “America,” the speaker talks about the flaws in this country, but how he loves it anyway. That’s how I feel. I love living here. I feel blessed to have been born in this country and to have had so much opportunity. But, sometimes, I feel like America doesn’t love me back.

Read it here.


Crystal J. Zanders is a writer, teacher, and pug-owner who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is the current poetry editor of Blue Mesa Review and a second- year MFA student at the University of New Mexico.

Crystal Zanders