Death in summer seems unnatural. Summer’s the season of growth from flower to fruit, but across our country, violence involving law enforcement cuts lives of civilians and police officers, an average of three a day.
Southern California is no exception. With so much death, we feel a need to put into words our loss. We need to make sense of our world. We need to lament.
Later this week I will join other writers in participating in Lament for the Dead, an online community poetry project that will mark with a poem the death of every person killed by police this summer and every police officer lost in the line of duty. The novelist, poet, and Time magazine correspondent Carey Wallace founded and curates this project.
Wallace says, “The topic of police violence in this country is incredibly raw, and the dialogue around it is filled with pain, rage, and blame. Victims of police violence and police who are killed in the line of duty very quickly become symbols in the public mind, either heroes or villains. As we shape them to fit our arguments, they’re stripped of their humanity, and we forget to cry for them.”
“Lament is a poetic form of public grief that gives us a language beyond what we hear in the public sphere,” says Wallace. “Strategy, argument, and reckoning are all crucial to change. But to heal, we must mourn.”
According to the project’s website, “When poets join, they do not know whether they will be lamenting the death of an officer or someone who is killed by police. Poets commit to writing on a specific date, and compose each poem in less than 24 hours, based on the events of the previous day. Death notices are posted as they are reported in the press, according to the time of each death, and then replaced by a poem.”
Robbi Nester, the first Southern Californian poet to participate in the project, says, “The article I received initially didn’t have any name on it or details. After doing a search for other sources, I found the man’s name and a photograph that inspired my poem.” Kenneth Garcia, 28, of Stockton, CA died on June 14.
“I wanted to participate,” says Orange County poet Nester, “because I, like so many others, have felt helpless to do anything about the terrible trend of violence in the streets, with police becoming increasingly militarized and alienated from the public, especially people of color, and the price of life seeming to be so cheap.”
“Garcia was not the kind of person I might have thought of as representative of these problems,” says Nester, “yet writing the poem forced me to recognize that a life is a life, and this person, like all others had unspoken tragedies and trauma that may have led to his violent behavior.”
Claremont poet and retired psychologist Karen Greenbaum-Maya received an article on the death of Kris Jackson, 22, of Peretuth Lake Tahoe, CA who died on June 15, 2015. Greenbaum-Maya says, “Kris Jackson turned out to be a very unsympathetic character. In fact, my first reaction was, ‘No loss there.’ However, that wasn’t the project. I took a long walk and thought about how lamentable his life was, how much had gone wrong, rather than his death—caught myself thinking, ‘I have so many questions’—and I realized that those questions were what would make the poem.”
Greenbaum-Maya’s lament titled “Interrogation, or, Questions No One Asked Kris Jackson” artfully lists a series of emotionally charged questions, leaving a reader connected to Jackson as a fellow human.
Los Angeles poet Judith Terzi wrote on the June 16, death of Jermaine Benjamin, 42, of Gifford, FL. Terzi says, “There was scant info about Benjamin or the incident, though I did search the net to find out when he was born and if he had had any prior incidents. I found out that the police had been called to his house something like 70 times already in 10 years.”
“I decided,” says Terzi, “to write the poem in the form of a prayer using repetition and the second person. Like an ode to him. At the last minute I got the idea to include the epigraph from “Wayfaring Stranger” because staring into his photo, Jermaine Benjamin seemed so lost and forlorn. I began to feel pity for him.”
Laments allow us to see the human commonalities that bind us, to recognize how we all have added to the world and harmed it, to preserve another’s memory, and to comfort those of us who remain alive.
Almost as surely as the heat of summer rises, so will the toll from police violence. Don’t let the news reports be another number. Go to www.lamentforthedead.org and grieve another human life.