From the outside, the Garden City Church of Christ looks like any small rural church. The building is just large enough for a sanctuary, a small vestibule where the greeters stand, an office in the back, and a basement where the choir practices and where Sunday school classes and church dinners are held. Four steps lead to the front door, the exterior paint is mildewed, the steeple seems tacked on. It’s as though it’s not a building at all, just a part of the landscape that has formed temporarily, ghost-like, into the shape of church.
The same ephemeral nature is true of the other buildings and businesses along the stretch of road that forms the unincorporated town of Garden City. There are houses made with asbestos-laced asphalt siding, trailers on cement blocks, a pole barn used for motorcycle and small tractor repair, a small pig farm, an abandoned filling station, one or two truck gardens, a cemetery, and a drive-in restaurant that serves chile dogs and tenderloins and is open five months out of the year. The government has fitted the drive-in with an elaborate water filtration system, as is true of the church and a few of the other inhabited buildings.
Everything in Garden City is separated by temporary fencing. There are no hardware stores, no clothing stores, no drug or grocery stores. Garden City, in other words, is just a strip of civilization along a strip of road, surrounded by dreaming fields of corn and beans.
When I was a child, and growing up in Garden City, I thought I knew everything there was to know about it.
If you find yourself there now, you’ll have to drive another twenty minutes or so to get to the larger town that houses the county courthouse and the factory that makes engine parts and still feeds and clothes and shelters everyone in the county to various degrees. The newer Japanese plants that make circuit boards are located even farther out in the country. They’re rectangular windowless buildings with the company name in crimson lettering. These factories seem to appear overnight as though pushed up through the soil by an underground rectangle, like those sculptures made on pinscreens. You know the ones—where you can press the pins from underneath with your hand and suddenly there’s a 3D impression of your hand. Take your hand away and it’s as though you were never there at all.
If you’re an executive at the engine factory, you’re originally from one of the coasts, and if you’re an executive at one of the new Japanese plants, you’re either from Japan or one of the coasts. No one informed you about the plume before you came, and when you found out, if you found out, you were assured you were safe from it. The plume is nothing, just leftovers from the filling station, you were told if you asked. It’s a thing that happens everywhere. We’re on top of it.
In any case, you may have driven through Garden City on your way to your new home on the man-made lakes and not paid much attention to it. Or you may have passed through on your way to the tourist town that sells fried chicken and apple butter in the autumn or on your way to the university two hours away or on your way to the country mechanic, his yard filled with rusted parts and his helpers sucking down beer and falling asleep from a combination of the beer and fumes.
Oh, who knows why you drove through, really. The ‘why’ is just something we fill our time with, sitting on our porches watching the cars go by. That’s what you think of us, right? That’s all we do, just watch you go by, centers of the universe. So maybe you have a mistress or know a prostitute who lives out in the dark spaces. Maybe your grandmother lives out in the country. Maybe you’re looking for drugs. Maybe you’re on the lam. Maybe you’re nostalgic for something, perhaps the Milky Way, and you think you might find it if you drive far enough into the country. I only know you most likely didn’t notice that the place had a name and that the church was named after the place. And it is a place. It is deeply placed in fact, as the church can attest. I was baptized in its pool. The church member who nursed my parents in their oldest age lives in one of the asphalt-sided houses. There are red geraniums in a pot on her front porch. The geraniums aren’t real, and yes, she has one too many lawn ornaments.
However, I’ll give you this: if you did notice the name of the place for some reason, you probably commented on the fact that no place in the world could look less like a city or a garden. On that we can now agree.
To go on: inside the church, the benches are made of pine, like caskets. The windows of the church are clear glass, the walls are grayish white, the floors are sloped and clad in worn blue carpet. Over fifty years ago someone painted a picture of a river and trees on the wall behind the baptismal pool. The river is chipped and faded, is poorly drawn but recognizable as river.
The white robes for baptisms hang just off stage, like sheets for a Halloween costume or Christmas pageant. Ghosts or wisemen.
Why am I telling you this? Out of love, I suppose, for this little strip of human habitation. Out of anger. Out of the wish to confess.
Oh, where to begin? With the hundreds of saints who have, over the years, dipped their white-robed bodies in the water of the Garden City Church of Christ baptismal pool, infusing sin into the pool like they were bags or balls of tea, emerging cleansed and holy?
The bitter dregs of our sins go down the drain every Sunday afternoon when the baptistery is drained and cleaned. It is refilled with water and chemicals every Friday and blessed early Sunday morning.
The water, by custom, bypasses the pipes when the pool is emptied and the holy water is pumped directly into the ground. The water, when it leaves the sacristy, rejoins the plume which is also, though little understood or talked about, its source. Was it our fault, the plume? Did we begin the separation of the body from the soul, the sin from the sinner? Isn’t it human to want to be cleansed? To pitch the dirty water from scrubbing potatoes outside the kitchen door?
It’s the plume I imagine now when driving by the church, when I sit in my car at the drive-in, eating chile dogs and root beer. I live farther out in the country now. Every summer my parents, the innocents, went to the drive-in for their anniversary. They brought me along. I acquired a taste. This was before we knew about the plume, though the plume was already there underneath us, phosphorescent, corrosive, on the move. Whale-shaped, the tip of its fin on top of the ground at the abandoned gas station. This was when we still trusted all the wells.
The knowledge of the plume came slowly. I have to say that it appeared first in our dreams. We dreamed of feathers and tornadoes, of rushing water and wind. Then it moved from our dreams to our senses.
First, there was the odd taste of something like oil in the coney sauce. Had the proprietor changed his ingredients? No, he had not. He added more brown sugar and it seemed to solve the problem for a while. And then the slight odor of oil in our morning coffee, the film of oil we attributed to the coffee itself. And then there was the graying of the glasses of cool water that came from the sinks, the increase in precipitate. We were used to variations in taste during harvest time and planting season. But there was the odor of something acrid in the baptismal pool, something other than chlorine, cologne, aftershave, and old hymnals on Sunday mornings.
For a while the preacher kept adding more chlorine to mask the smell. He attributed the need to an increase in the numbers of those wishing to be baptized, to the power of his sermons which were, to be honest, never powerful.
When the gas tanks first came down, when the station closed, there were pools of black sludge on the ground by the church. No real problem there we thought at first, nothing dangerous, a minor inconvenience. Oil on your workclothes, gasoline in your car, oil in the petroleum jelly you used occasionally on your skin. Familiar, the smell of oil.
But then, finally, we had to face it: the trucks that appeared at night, driving out from the engine factory. We knew what was going on. We all knew. Some of us had driven those trucks out to the dumping grounds, the expendable places. We just didn’t know we would be added to the list so soon, that we ourselves had become expendable. And so we trusted when the company said it was all safe, that the gas station tanks were built for just this contingency. The owner of the station kept making money from his failed business. Our sin-tinged holy water was so very pure by comparison.
The brain tumors came later. By the time they started blooming in our heads, muddling our responses, the owners of the land and factory had moved offshore.
I am a reliable witness and what I’m telling you is the truth. The first job I ever had was on the burr bench at the engine factory. It was the job you began with and the one you wanted to leave as soon as you were given a promotion to the line. Your job on the bench was to take a chemical so strong it made you hallucinate, so corrosive it ate through your gloves, and to work that acid into the engine parts to remove the excess bits of metal. For many years this was done by hand, the rubbing away of the burrs on the rods and cylinders. We thought of them as the thorns on a rose, on the crown of thorns. We were doing God’s work. You had to have an eye for it, a feel for the sharp places on the steel. You had to know how to apply the corrosive, how hard to apply the pressure so the engine part left your bench polished and smooth. What was left at the end of the day were the chemicals in a pool filled with dissolving metal burrs. It was not unlike the baptism pool, you’re thinking. We thought. At night the liquid was siphoned into tanks and driven out into the dark country where it was poured into the ground behind the abandoned gas station next to the Church of Christ. Who would complain? Who would we complain to? Where would our livelihood come from if we did? We would have done the same thing if we were the bosses. By morning it had seeped into the ground except for the small puddle joining with the sludge and surrounded by a fence.
It took a long time until we understood that the acid ate its way into the earth and formed a plume filled with the dissolving metal thorns and toxins, that the plume was making its way toward all the water in the world, feeding off its innocence, waiting to rise from the ground like the tornado in our dreams. Honestly, none of us stands a chance against it.
What happened to Christ’s crown of thorns? I used to wonder this. It fascinated me, the rivulets of blood streaming down his face. Was the crown removed with Christ’s body and placed into the tomb? Was it left by the cross? Might some bare-footed Roman have stepped on one of the thorns and if so, was he healed or sickened? Was the crown purified by blood or was it poisoned? Was it broken up and sold, thorn by thorn, as relics? Did it perform miracles? Or did it decay, corroding everything it touched?
I think the latter. I think it became the first plume, and every plume after that one yearns to join it. It pulses beneath the ground in this garden planet. There’s not much time now, so dip your body into any untainted water you can find, if you can find it still. It’s coming to a boil beneath your feet. Purify yourself. Rid yourself of the complicity if you can.
On November 24, 2014, my Facebook News Feed forked: all at once I was reading two wholly different kinds of perspective, like dispatches from parallel dimensions. I remember because I was laid up for days with a fever-dream flu, the kind where you pour broth down your throat while it’s still too hot because everything in your body aches for the fluid. I couldn’t sleep or work, but I could hold a laptop and click. That’s what I was doing when the grand jury announced its decision on the shooting death of Michael Brown some four months earlier.
Darren Wilson, the white police officer with some light facial bruising and a story that didn’t add up, was not indicted on murder charges. Michael Brown, the black teenager whose body lay in the street for hours, remained killed; we were just all officially meant to call it something else now.
The bifurcation of my social media stream was stark and immediate. On one side, outpourings of rage and grief, anguished and weary exchanges, posts and reposts of memes bearing Brown’s face, tagged with the gut-punching, ‘Is-this-real-life?’ hashtag #blacklivesmatter. For myself and my co-workers who teach young men of color, who have watched white cops put them in handcuffs for ‘disrespect’, very little felt larger at that moment than our terror for their safety, than the urgency of that terror. How much larger must that terror have been for their families? For the young men themselves? After all, a white cop shot a black child, and (the story goes) made enough money in donations to retire.
However, these heady emotional posts were also interspersed with ones that now seemed oddly inane. I saw photos of people’s dogs in funny hats, a recipe for Moroccan chicken, and a video tutorial for DIY (“professional quality!”) blowouts at home. I saw new haircuts and bikes and album after album of adorable children who would never need to fear for their safety from the police unless they were holding a weapon. It was almost like watching what Facebook should look like: in that parallel universe that was nearly the same as our own, but in which Ferguson was not on fire and Darren Wilson was being arraigned. “Yep, we’re all still good here, the world makes sense, check out these cats—they’re dressed like they run a Pizza Hut!”
The poetry world did something similar in the months that followed. For example, I have vivid memories of reading Danez Smith’s blazing, beautiful, sad poems: sharing them and emailing them and quoting them and being excited about them in general. For example, “Not An Elegy for Mike Brown,” which in its very first line communicates a heartsickness, a weariness:
I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning
It is the work of someone who does not want to have to do this work, who wishes that so many other kinds of poem were available in this moment, but who writes this one because it is necessary. It is born of the urgency of having to live in a skin you’ve been shown is a liability. It is not saying, “I will choose to confront this.” It is saying, “I must.”
One of the things that makes this poem such a difficult read is the naked hurt that travels with this imperative, the continuous acknowledgement of its subject’s general invisibility within our poetic tradition: “think: once, a white girl / was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan War. / later, up the block, Troy got shot / & that was Tuesday.” The language swings between verve and heartbreak, as when Smith demands a war to bring Michael Brown back from the dead but follows immediately with a demurral, with lowered expectations. “I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.” To locate Brown’s killing within the epic universe of The Iliad is audacious, so much so that the impact is even stronger when the poem’s speaker de-escalates the negotiations.
Frederick Seidel also wrote a poem about Ferguson: “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri.” More than mourning or disorientation, its oblique, meandering opening communicates a skittish reluctance to get political—anxiety over maybe being labeled pedantic runs through it like a tight-strung invisible thread. Rather than locate his concern too transparently in the political, he sidles up to the topic, approaching via the intellect. He writes:
A man unzipping his fly is vulnerable to attack.
Then the zipper got stuck.
An angel flies in the window to unstick it.
A drone was monitoring all this
In real time
And it appears on a monitor on Mars,
Though of course with a relay delay.
One of the monitors at the Mars base drone station
Is carefully considering all your moves for terror output.
But not to worry. Forget about about about it.
The body of the man you were
Has disappeared inside the one you wear.
Ferguson, Missouri isn’t mentioned until the sixth stanza, and the reader arrives there by way of Mars, Madison Avenue, the Carlyle Bar, and Indianapolis. It’s worth saying that this isn’t a bad poem, just a puzzling one, and it does reward re-reading. The line “I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County” works as a fulcrum, smack in the middle, subtly and (not so subtly) altering the repeated refrains that follow it. The elegant Mad. Ave. clothes-shopper from the third stanza is transformed, now a man on fire, trailing the flames after him into the Carlyle. The polite Algerian waiter collapses in strokes and prayers.
Seidel uses this technique to demonstrate the way that even the most pedestrian (if elite) concerns and activities are sullied by systemic injustice. The poem is heavily historical, grounded in Seidel’s memories of the Civil Rights Movement; Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billie Holiday are all present. It also strives for topicality, concerning itself to the point of preoccupation with drones, monitors, terror, privacy—all humans, regardless of race, united under a surveilling eye.
So where’s the difference, and does it matter? The obvious answer would be that white poets can choose to engage this topic—the destruction of black and brown bodies at the hands of our police, cavalier, casual, largely unpunished, and seemingly ceaseless. This is one of the most insidious benefits of white privilege. When our racist great-uncles insist on ‘playing Devil’s advocate’ on Facebook, we are free to defriend. When the news is baffling and horrifying, we are free to turn our eyes elsewhere. We are free to choose whether we make this ‘our issue’; when we do make it our issue, we are free to approach it as serenely, as philosophically, as much Devil’s advocates as we like. We are free, in essence, to live on the dogs-in-hats side of the Facebook feed.
On November 25, 2014, Danez Smith wrote an “Open Letter to White Poets,” saying:
There are people I cannot reach because what I make is degraded (& why not glorified?) for its label of black art. I implore, I need you to make art, black, dark art that shines an honest light on the histories of your paler kin. I ask you to join those fighting, under the cry of “Black Lives Matter”, in whatever way you can. Research ways you can be involved in your local community, think critically about how you can use your privilege and influence, effect change; I challenge you to make art that demands the safety of me, of many of your writing siblings, of so many people walking the streets in fear of those who are charged to protect us, even of people who we hesitate at times to call our fellow Americans.
As my activist friends have been putting it, “white silence equals white consent.” I would argue for a poetics that complicates this notion, or at least one that holds white artists to a higher standard than simple acknowledgement of systemic racism. In certain instances, without forethought or empathy, white speech on these issues can be incredibly harmful. Witness Kenneth Goldsmith’s now-infamous performance piece, “The Body of Michael Brown,” a 30-minute long reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report. Goldsmith read this text (which he altered through cut-ups and remixing) beneath a massive projected image of Brown’s graduation photo. He chose to end the poem with a jarring line about Brown’s “unremarkable” genitalia. He played these choices straight, with a gravitas that could be called self-congratulatory if one were feeling uncharitable, and seemed honestly surprised at the outpouring of rage and pain that followed.
Many writers of color have deconstructed this poem, far more eloquently than I could here; I bring it up because it illustrates my point so well. White silence is unacceptable, but mere white speech is not enough. It is possible for white authors to enter the conversation in modes and styles that reify white supremacy rather than helping to dismantle it. Black and brown bodies—black and brown tragedy, misery—are not a canvas for our experimentation or philosophizing. At a certain point, Goldsmith’s reading of Michael Brown’s injuries can only look like appropriation. At a certain point, Seidel’s observation that he “wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County” only serves to remind that he is a white man in New York City.
This type of speech is easy, and it is not what we need. Rather, we need white poets to be accountable, to be honest about the power of our voices and their capacity to wound, to be aware of how far those voices carry. Claudia Rankine, quoting Judith Butler, wrote that “we suffer from the condition of being addressable.” Amiri Baraka wrote, “Let there be no love poems written / Until love can exist freely and / Cleanly.” The news continues to baffle and horrify. We need to keep our eyes peeled, our fever spiked, waiting for the poem that crashes our two different worlds—two different poetics—together until they are indistinguishable, down to the dental records. Who knows? Maybe one of us could even write it.