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.

Hopeful Change in Richmond

On this July 4th, Richmond, VA, my home and birthplace, is a changed city.  Restaurants, gyms, and barbershops shuttered for months tiptoe towards normality, masked shoppers courteously dodge each other in the stores, and for more than a month, protestors have marched every day and night proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, their efforts too often marred by an aggressive and militarized police force that only serves to underline their protests against police brutality.  The monuments to Confederate generals on Monument Avenue are coming down, something that seemed daring to imagine in the story published in my collection Last Rites a year ago.

As I told it, the Confederate ghosts, condemned to haunt their monuments, taunted each other, Jefferson Davis predicting that A.P. Hill’s little traffic island plinth in North Richmond would come down first as a test case before the toppling of all the equestrian statues on Monument Avenue.  But as it happened, General Hill got the last laugh, his statue still standing, while those on Monument Avenue fall like dominoes.  Not that he hasn’t been targeted.  Marchers have demonstrated at his feet, and one of the ugly events of the past month occurred there, when an anti-protestor ran his car through the crowd.  Fortunately, no one was hospitalized, and the culprit was arrested.  But after more than a month of nightly marches, a bronze and pigeon-bombed A.P. Hill still stands athwart the leafy environs of Northside.  The city has recognized his unique status, because unlike the Confederates who have been toppled, Hill is not just memorialized but buried inside his plinth.  Before his statue is dismantled, something must be decided about what to do with his remains.  Because his corpse stands inside it, the Hill monument may yet survive the current purge. 

As will hundreds of other testaments to the Confederacy here in Richmond.  Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett lie among 27 Confederate generals and 18,000 enlisted men in the shadow of a 90-foot granite pyramid erected in their honor at Hollywood Cemetery.  The Daughters of the Confederacy will continue to place confederate flags atop their graves.  The perverse Tiffany stained glass window of Robert E. Lee (as Moses) amidst angels in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Grace Street, will remain, as will the White House of the Confederacy (where Stonewall Jackson’s bullet-torn jacket is reverently displayed), the Civil War Museum at the old Tredegar Iron Works, where so many of the Confederate cannons were forged, the old Confederate convalescent home and chapel on the VMFA grounds, and the townhouse on Franklin Street where Lee licked his wounds after the war. 

Those critics who have complained that Richmond will lose its tourism dollars from Civil War history buffs now that the Monument Avenue statues are coming down are no doubt mistaken.  This city is permeated with the war and its ultimate cause.  Consider, for instance, the Slave Trail to the razed Lumpkins Jail site; consider Belle Isle, where hundreds of Union soldier POW’s starved and died of dysentery; consider the ruined half bridge on the James, a reminder of the burning of Richmond, ordered by the Confederates themselves, as they fled south at the end of the war. 

Consider, too, the national park battlefields dotting the area: Cold Harbor, Malvern Hill, and within an hour’s drive Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, and Petersburg.  Those battlefields would seem to be likely relocation sites for the Monument Avenue statuary.  I have mused about remounting General Lee on his noble horse Traveler, at Petersburg, pointed west towards surrender at Appomattox.  General Hill, a reckless warrior and a virulent and abusive racist (though in my story a long ghostly pergatory has mellowed him somewhat), may deserve no monument at all.  Perhaps his corpse will, as my story suggests, eventually lie without fanfare in some family plot near his birthplace in Culpeper. 

And perhaps the time will come when we can perceive the blight of slavery and its ongoing aftermath, the holocaust visited on Native Americans (and its ongoing aftermath), the continued unequal treatment of women, and the persecution of all those “othered” people (immigrants, LBGTQ folk, those with disabilities) in a clear-eyed and fully informed light that leverages our history towards honest reflection and action.  Perhaps as the ghost of A.P. Hill in my story concludes, we may eventually recognize both the dream and ideal that we claim for our nation, and acknowledge and atone for the horrors perpetrated in their name across the centuries. 

If the upheaval this year in Richmond and around the globe can do more than topple racist monuments, if this long-suppressed fury can be harnessed to reconciliation and reparation, in the name of a more equitable nation, in the name of recognizing all people as our brothers and sisters deserving of the rights penned by that most complex and troubling Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, then perhaps, too, the remaining vestiges of the war that for a time split our nation in half, a war with ghosts that haunt us still, can play a role in reminding us of what can happen when we let fear and greed sour to hate, serving as cautionary guideposts towards a better way marked by hope, kinship and justice.  Or not.  As always, it’s up to us.  Stay well and safe this Independence Day, friends.

Image by Richmond Times Dispatch