Lately I’ve been looking ahead, thinking a lot about summer. There’s an untitled poem about summertime I’ve been working on for four years. The last version reads:
How does the heat pluck bodies from stoops
from groups huddled under lamp light
from sidewalks that posed no threat months ago?
Why does rising mercury mean hunting season?
It just got warm out
It’s that shit I been warned bout
Everybody dies in the summer
So pray to god for little more spring
We jazz June
We die soon.
It always feels unfinished, a perma-draft rather than a poem. Maybe it’s because most of the words in the poem aren’t mine. The second and third stanzas belong to Chance the Rapper and Gwendolyn Brooks, borrowed from “Paranoia” and “We Real Cool,” respectively. I can’t seem to put our ideas in conversation with one another without the seams showing. (Then again, many of my poems are composed entirely of other people’s words, so I’m not sure that’s a valid excuse.) Maybe it’s because I haven’t clearly defined the question for myself, let alone arrived at an answer. What is it about the summer that makes black life feel more fragile?
Don’t get me wrong, I live for summer. (In New England summer feels like a reward for surviving an endless winter.) I love beach days and soul train lines at barbecues and brown skin looking crisp and sun kissed. Summer is the time I feel most alive and, somehow, most unsettled.
I’ve been rolling these thoughts over while doing admin to get my collection Testify (Octopus Books, 2017) into the world this August. Testify experiments with documentary poetics to uplift stories of black people impacted by state-sanctioned violence. To say it was emotionally challenging to write is an understatement. Though the work of creating it is complete, the challenging nature of the material persists. Even the backend tasks– picking promo images, crafting summaries, discussing broadsides & epherma – have their own eerie feel. Proof reading, double-checking death dates for departed sons & daughters. So many of them buried in summer months.
I keep wondering if we’ll make it to August without going to war. Wondering about the domestic communities already at war, living in occupied neighborhoods. Surely by the time Testify comes out there will be another police-involved murder, another homie, another hashtag. Or stories of summer violence in communities navigating failed systems and collective trauma. The question is never if. It is when and who.
I have to remember, it’s still April. There’s time to call up my lil homies, former students & younger cousins; ask if they’ve started checking for summer jobs, summer camp, summer school, summer something to make them safe. As if such a thing exists. In the meantime I keep writing poems and praying for a little more spring.
–Simone John, 2017 WROB Gish Jen Fellow