Breonna Taylor Died Tonight

One year ago, they killed her. Here on this sorrowful anniversary is the foreword to my manuscript of poems in her honor, Breonna: Poems after Sappho.

Parodies can be satires, but not always. They can also be loving tributes, which is my intention here.

Breonna.  If you take a moment to look at that viral photograph of a uniformed Breonna Taylor — proudly smiling before the seal of the City of Louisville, with a bunch of flowers and her award for stellar service as an emergency medical technician in her arms — don’t you feel like you knew her? Don’t you wish you had? She reminds me of some of the best people I’ve known, nurse’s aides and medical assistants, and other allied health providers, who can stanch blood, restart a heart, safely take down a person in the grip of psychosis. Women whose examples of professionalism, dignity and self-effacing humor taught me, in my health care career, the easily overlooked things that matter so much. How to turn a frail patient or sit patiently for a half hour, spooning food and chatting. How to wipe the ass of an elderly man, powder it, and discreetly dispose of the mess briskly and efficiently, while sparing him any shame or embarrassment. These are not little things. They are acts on which a civil society hinges.

Clearly, Breonna understood that life is hard, especially for a Black woman from the working class in a famously racist city. She did not turn away from that knowledge. She chose to help in the most direct way, serving people in emergency. She died at the hands of others paid to “protect and serve,” a tragic irony that we White folk have only begun to appreciate.

Breonna was killed at the very beginning of the pandemic, just weeks after beginning work in the emergency room at a hospital that, as I write this on New Year’s Eve, 2020, is overwhelmed by Covid patients. Think of the lives Breonna might have helped save this year, that she might have yet saved in the coming year, and on down through a long career.

Sappho. The great poet of ancient Greece, acknowledged as such even during her lifetime, her work surviving only in a few allusive, fragmentary verses. What’s left has been translated into English several times. The version I have is Mary Barnard’s from 1958. Succinct, to the point, beautifully spare. Each time you read through its 100 snippets, you learn more. Sometimes I think you could create a whole culture from the collage left us.  At other times, I marvel at Sappho’s delight in small things, her passion and concern for others. A few poems speak of early death, of a young person taken too soon. I think that’s what made the link for me.

The poems. If you care to compare, this book closely follows Barnard’s translation of Sappho. Some of the poems alter only a few words, and a few fragments are not changed at all, because they seem to apply perfectly across the ages. Two of Sappho’s most famous poems resisted my twists and substitutions, so I replaced them with my own, attempting to mimic Barnard’s style. The idea has been to shape an evocative collage of Ms. Taylor’s last day and its aftermath, or what I know of it and can imagine from the news. Awakening at dawn to face the sirens, the rush, and the pain of the emergency room, grabbing a quick lunch with a friend, returning home to her boyfriend Kenneth, to rest her weary bones, so she could do it all over again tomorrow.

Not hard to visualize what happened next.  We’ve seen versions in a hundred cop shows and movies. The assault, the victims on the floor, the grieving families, the rigged justice system. And in Breonna’s case, because enough was enough, the rousing protests around the world. Not hard to imagine at all, but not easy to rest with either. A lot happened in 2020. Breonna’s story sparked some of it.  We owe her so much, but that would be true even if those cruel, heedless detectives had not battered down her door. I wanted to speak to that somehow, and Sappho (please forgive me) came to mind. 

So no, this parody is not a satire. More a eulogy and reflection, at least that is my aim.

The University of California Press, which owns Ms. Barnard’s Sappho translation, has refused the right to publish this manuscript, so I’ve been posting the poems in sequence, two a day, on my Twitter account since mid-February. There are 100 poems in all, and I’ve posted 52 so far, the rest to come. If you care to read them, you can go to @tony_gentry on Twitter, scroll down to the first one, and then scroll up through them all. Or if you like, leave a comment here with your email address and I’ll send you the whole collection as a PDF.

One more thing, if you’re interested, The New York Times has posted an 18-minute video that details what happened at Breonna Taylor’s apartment one year ago today.

How Mama Remembered Christmas

In her old age, Mama surprised us all with a memoir she’d typed on a second hand manual typewriter picked up at a yard sale.  I hand-bound a few copies for the family and Mrs. McGehee printed an excerpt in the Fluvanna County Historical Society Bulletin.  On this Christmas Eve, thought I’d share a brief chapter:

These were the Depression years and times were hard for everyone, but especially difficult for my parents as my father being a sharecropper worked the farm and received only two-thirds of the crops he raised, but we were furnished with the house in which we lived.  No potpourri was needed in this farm house.  An apple orchard grew on the farm and the aroma of ripening Winesaps scented the entire house from several barrels of apples kept in the attic bedroom for our consumption during the winter months.  Peaches, berries, grapes and cherries grown on the farm along with the apples provided the fruit for the family needs.

Today being blessed with four grown children and six grandchildren (now eight) and enjoying being in their homes especially at Christmas and watching them enjoy the many toys they find beneath the tree, I am happy for them, and my mind goes back to other years long ago and Christmases in my home when I was a child.  Stockings were not hung at our house.  Instead we selected shoe boxes during the year that were placed in special corners awaiting Santa’s arrival.  This remained the custom in my home while celebrating Christmas in later years with my own children and what a happy and special time this was for me.  We never decorated a tree at the old farm, but it was Christmas nevertheless, and we knew we were celebrating Christ’s birthday.  I still recall the feeling of anticipation on Christmas Eve and the excitement of Christmas morning as we rushed down the narrow stairs to find what was in our boxes.

There was always one special toy in each, a handful of hard candy, a few nuts and an orange.  This was the only time of year when we saw an orange, as they were not in the store except at Christmas.  The toy we received was the only one we had from one Christmas to the next.  I never remember having a birthday cake or getting a gift on that day until after I left home.  But at Christmas, my mother always baked chocolate, coconut and caramel cakes for us to enjoy during the holidays.

One Christmas stands out in my memory.  I found a small brown teddy bear in my box.  For some reason, I didn’t like the fuzzy toy with the bead eyes.  I tossed it under a chair and never touched it again.  Now I know how badly my parents must have felt when I rejected the toy they had chosen and sacrificed getting for me.  Today I have a similar one sitting in a rocker in my living room that I cherish.

Prologue to my Novel The Coal Tower

My debut novel The Coal Tower is available now in paperback or Kindle versions (you can request the book at your bookstore, too).   Here’s the prologue:

Every town has a place like this.  In Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s the coal tower.  A squat, concrete bunker roughly the shape of an enormous thermos bottle, it stands shaggy with kudzu on six ponderous concrete legs next to the train tracks that run east and west through downtown. A few coal and gas trains still run along these tracks, rumbling between mines up in the mountains and power plants dotted around the Virginia Piedmont, but now that all the revamped warehouses have gone electric or solar, the tower serves no purpose.  Its steel-reinforced walls are too sturdy to dynamite, and so far no developer has imagined a way to turn it into condos.  At one point, years ago, a sculptor built a 20-foot tall dress frame atop the tower, then draped a giant’s white cotton dress on it, naming the work in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally Hemings.  He meant it to be a thought-provoking, lovely memorial and provocation, and it did serve — if nothing else —  as a middle finger aimed at Monticello, the Founding Father’s hilltop home.

            The artist was surprised, however, to learn that the dress would not stay on.  He’d get a call at his studio in Staunton and drive over the mountain to find the yards of fabric that made up the sculpture’s dress stretched across the honeysuckle thickets, torn and dirty, as if blown off by the wind.  He’d unstitch it into washable sections, have it laundered and resewn, then spend a whole day with ladders, tools and a couple university students precariously fitting the dress back onto the frame.  Two days later, he’d get the call again.  This happened three times.  After that, he bought a thermos of coffee and parked his pickup behind some scrap lumber by the tracks and waited.  Woke up with a start to find the dress gone again, but this time it was nowhere to be found.  He looked everywhere it could have blown, then noticed something, a crack in the coal chute door.  The door was carved into the face of the tower ten feet off the ground, but he was able to straddle a rail siding in his pickup and hoist himself up from the cabtop.  To his surprise, the door was not sealed at all, just blocked by a flap of plywood that he easily pushed aside.  You couldn’t see much in there, but his flashlight revealed that someone had found a use for the coal tower after all.  A rusty ladder bolted onto the interior wall stretched down to a circular room littered with squatter’s treasure:  blankets, pans, an old mattress and piles of other debris.  Crumpled in one corner, like a deflated hot air balloon, lay the torn and coal-streaked dress.

            The artist climbed down inside the tower and retrieved the dress.  He then notified the police and personally sealed the coal chute door with an old oaken tabletop that he bolted into the concrete.  But he gave up on the dress, leaving the skeletal frame atop the tower, having convinced himself that the sculpture was more interesting that way.  But really, it would have been such a hassle to dismantle it, and nobody cared anyway.  When he left, as far as anybody knew, the kudzu took over.  The sturdy monstrosity squatted ugly and forgotten along the tracks.

            Except not really.  It had taken all of five minutes to pop the door bolts with a crowbar.  The squatter’s camp was back in business in a week.  A seasonal refuge, largely abandoned in the summer and winter, but cozy during the rains of spring and fall, it serves a transient population that the proud, go-getter town does not even imagine.