Guns and poems

What can poetry accomplish?

Illustration of pages flying out of a book, surreal philosophy concept

Illustration by francescoch

Content warning: gun violence, the killing of children

Taylor Lewis Guthrie Hartman reads “i will sleep in a pile of my babies’ laundry tonight and soak in the smell of their still breathing bodies/ another lament for another avoidable day.”

i will sleep in a pile of my babies’ laundry tonight and
soak in the smell of their still breathing bodies/
another lament for another avoidable day 

the babies of Uvalde –
did their mothers also wipe
the yogurt off their sleeves this morning,
spray the underside of a tangled
nest before frantically brushing
and shuttling them to the penultimate
carpool? did they count the moles
on their cheeks? did they try and scrape
the dirt from their fingernails and fuss
for the fifteenth time
that they have to use soap? did they
already wash their sheets because it was laundry day
and now
now that haint of early summer sweat
mixed with sticky candy found
yesterday in the crevice of a backpack
is gone and they can’t remember
if their baby’s left incisor was loose
or if it was their right
and are they pulling out the hair
from that brush and smelling it?
putting it in their pocket
that is crammed with a thousand years’ worth of tissues
filled with the ten thousand tears of Rachel
all of the weeping not enough but too much
because the fingerprints of her baby
can’t be found now, drowned
in the dread that that carpool?
that syrup splattered on her?
that argument about writing neater or even writing at all?
the babies of Uvalde –
O God, what have we done?
what can i do tonight but
let them dance in the rain,
call it a shower, pretending the tears
on my face are droplets from above,
squinting through swelling eyes as i try to count
their moles (him, four in the shape of the little
dipper; her, four, too, a compass as wide as her skull)?
let them twirl while i pray they know nothing of this
terrible world yet,
this avoidable world
where we allow laws that cause
mothers to lose
the babies of Uvalde.

By Taylor Lewis Guthrie Hartman

The one-year anniversary of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, snuck up on me, and not in the usual I-can’t-believe-how-fast-time-flies way. I had the distinct impression that the tragedy was in June. As I looked at the calendar on the anniversary of May 24, I realized my memory was misplaced. Of course, the shooting happened before summer break.

But last June was when I heard a poem by my colleague Taylor Lewis Guthrie Hartman.

What can a poem do? Reorient time. Even make time stop.

Does that sound, well, too poetic?

W.H. Auden actually wrote, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” I remember this quotation when so-called thoughts and prayers are offered after mass shootings. I rage when slick-haired, preening politicians pay lip service to the actual reasons for gun violence while blowing hot air about beer commercials and department store clothing sales — as if that has anything to do with AR-15s.

Yet, acknowledging my own hypocrisy, how often do I settle for the right opinion instead of working for righteousness in my own community?

I have devoted many words in the pulpit and in various publications arguing the biblical and ethical case for gun control. But — God forgive me! — it is tempting to be satisfied preaching to the choir, pat myself on the back and make nothing happen.

Taylor’s poem made a lasting impression on me.

She describes the gunk on the bottom of children’s backpacks — a combination of food crumbs, pencil shavings, eraser bits, leaves, dirt and more, everything compacted by lunchboxes, folders and books — that is left for parents to clean. As she read, I thought about the chores I do, grudgingly and lovingly, and how, no matter how annoyed I might be, it doesn’t cross my mind that, suddenly, I’d be left with only a backpack. And no child to wear it. As Taylor read, I became a puddle of tears right there in the front row. Time stopped. I imagine I will always remember that experience.

On the one-year anniversary of the Uvalde school shooting, I prayed for the families of the victims. Throughout the past year, I have called my elected representatives, hosted vigils and community action groups at the church I serve, and partnered with advocates in the larger community. These efforts were also in response to the recurrent tragedy of more mass shootings.

I’ve also been inspired to act because of a glance inside one of my children’s backpacks on just an ordinary morning before school. Taylor’s poem made that happen.

By Andrew Taylor-Troutman