Starting with Fire
by Meryl Natchez
Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, Beacon Press, Boston, 2017, 179 pages, $15.00 paperback, www.beacon.org.
I PICKED UP Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, with some trepidation. An anthology of poems and responses about gun violence could be pretty grim. But because many major poets are included, I started leafing through. Pretty soon I was hooked. Not only does the anthology contain important poems by famous poets, but also many varied and moving poems by less well-known contributors.
While the subject is gun violence, the content moves between intensely personal, individual tragedy, to thoughtful exploration of larger issues. Robert Hass's poem, "Dancing," provides an almost mythic context—"You might want to begin with fire…" while Tara Bray's poem about her mother's death starts with the stark line, "My father shook the gun to get the bullet out." Tess Taylor's poem is suffused in high school memory, "feeling so awful often/ packed together in our teenage sadness…," Jack Myers mourns his son, "who, just yesterday,/ freshened the world with his jasmine presence." Ross Gay personifies the bullet, "Let me be a ravenous diamond/ in it, he thinks, chewing through the milky jawbone/ of this handsome seventeen-year-old." Cornelius Eady's poem is a dialogue with his sister, "With a gun, hit the head,/ Be certain. This is what/ Childhood taught her." Robert Wrigley's poem takes on East Asia, "There being no art supplies in the nation,/ the government of Cambodia donated/ thousands of decommissioned Kalashnikovs to the visiting artists.…"
It's impossible to quote here all the different and powerful voices in this anthology. The poetry is rich with imagery, overflowing with sorrow, but almost never trite or predictable. The "citizen responses," one for each poem, are less successful, though heartfelt. My favorites include the response of Marie Delus, "Marine Veteran, Sharpshooter," who acknowledges the joy of her skill but ends with "if you have to ask what is the difference between children dying in their school and soldiers dying in war, then we have another battle entirely on our hands." Sharbari Ahmed notes the glorification of guns in the media: "A svelte young woman brandishing a gun is somehow rendered powerful and sexy. In a world where so many feel powerless and small, a gun is a talisman against insignificance. This may be our undoing." The forward by Gabrielle Giffords, former congresswoman and gun control advocate, and the introduction by Colum McCann, an Irish fiction writer now living in New York, are both worth reading. The alternating of poem and response makes it easy to move through the book; you can pick and choose, as one must with any anthology however well conceived.
Because of the subject matter, its darkness and complexity, this is not an anthology you can read cover to cover—or at least, not one I could read like that. But the alphabetical organization makes it easy to turn to a poet you know, or to one you don't, or to find the response of a particular public figure. I still haven't read every selection in the book. But I keep it on my desk, and am rarely disappointed when I open it.
The three editors have taken on a difficult task, one that is so important at this time, and one that does justice to its mission, to "untangle some of the 'facts' and reveal the human tissue underneath." They have created an important book, which informs and elevates the discussion. It's so sad that we need it, but so important that we have it.
Meryl Natchez's most recent book is a bilingual volume of translations from the Russian, Poems From the Stray Dog Café. Her book of poems is Jade Suit. Her work has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, ZYZZYVA, Atlanta Review, Comstock Review, and elsewhere. She blogs at www.dactyls-and-drakes.com.