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2021 Poetry

Rita Mookerjee

ELEGY IN AUGUST TOWN

The taxi man asks how I am coping with the recent incidents
on Hermitage Road. When I ask what happened he says violence

and before he tells me about the young man, I already know exactly
what happened. He says violence and the word bursts from its skin,

a word that leaves more words in its wake, almost always the same:
recent string of    teenage    investigation     pavement     unknown.

Back home, when the news says BREAKING, I hold my breath and wait
for the picture, which is usually a school photo. People tend to keep

those on hand. Here in Kingston, the boy’s aunt doesn’t have one.
It is her face in the paper instead, caught mid-speech with a clenched

hand and jaw to match. You can tell she is saying enough because 13 years
ago, her son was shot, then her daughter, now her nephew who was making

his way back from the market with yams, okra, and Scotch bonnets, his
Tuesday ritual. The paper reads DEATH STALKS AUGUST TOWN but I

know that this plague is not unique to the island. Against my will, I have
lost count of the dead back home. I have forgotten too many of the names

belonging to black bodies left too long on asphalt, many gone before
they grew facial hair or learned to drive. This too is an act of violence

of which I am guilty. The taxi man’s name is Rondell. He mistakes me
for an islander—Guyanese or Trini. He sighs, what has happened to us?

He doesn’t know that I’m just an import. Just a brown Yankee nerd in her
tortoiseshell glasses who hoped that things would be different here, that

black boys could jog home after rugby, bend to knot their shoelaces, grab
Ting from the gas station and make it back from the market. When I look

at the paper, at the aunt’s fury, I know that black boys in a black country
are not safe in the way I imagined. As Rondell turns onto the college campus,

a student bolts onto the road to jaywalk. In an instant, Rondell stops. He lets
the student cross. With a guilty smile the young man waves in gratitude.

He looks like a first year, maybe the same age as the boy who was killed.
Rondell waves back, calls from the window, muss protect the next generation.


LESSON FROM THE ORACLE WHO HAD SEEN TOO MUCH
for R.J.

For a time, my professor Regina was one of the lost
women trudging up and down Broad Street. You’ve
seen the type: an ageless person in a black down coat
too hot for the present weather. The type that prays
out loud to lost gods for a fix or even just a lemonade.
The type that screams as if waking from a nightmare.
The type you avoid eye contact with on the subway.
Regina kept pace during the day and slept in houses of sex

and crack after dark. But past the broken bottles and plastic
cups, up the rotted stairs soured with piss and butane,
she laid in dank rooms and thought of greater things. She
considered the pyramids and how they aligned beneath
the stars. She scrawled prayers to Tehuti on gum wrappers
and dropped them in fountains across the city. She channeled
Queen Nzinga leading her troops to battle the Portuguese.
She dreamt of James Brown onstage camel walking, euphoric.

Regina and the Broad Street walkers saw Philadelphia
grow wicked: scores of cops leering on side streets, cuffing
panhandlers, pulling out batons to bust protestor knees.
All this before the bombing of the house on Osage Street.
In her fury, with time, Regina found like minds. They wore
leather and rolled their hair with wax. But for all the big guns,
raised fists, and dreads, the Panthers were a brotherhood, not
a coven, and she still had many questions hanging in the air.

Regina stays in that broken city as a protector, a keeper
of stories light and dark. She won’t talk to cops, but the media is
the specter she hates the most. She once told me in a voice like
bent steel never to watch the news before bed, that it leaves foul
residue in the mind. Leaning close, she said do not take that filth
with you into the dream world. If you do, it will live in your body
and grow like a sickness.
Though I do my best to listen, with or
without the news, all day and all night, poison swims in my mind.


Rita Mookerjee is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Iowa State University. Her poetry is featured in Juked, Hobart Pulp, New Orleans Review, The Offing, and the Baltimore Review. Rita is both the Sex and Poetry Editor at Honey Literary as well as the Assistant Poetry Editor of Split Lip Magazine, and a poetry staff reader for [PANK].