CW: gun violence
I asked a class of middle school students to write a poem about a sound that they love or hate.
We brainstormed possibilities together: the crumpling of tin foil, the squelch of poking slime, the crack of opening a soda can, the squish of stirring mac-n-cheese.
When the time came to write, a student waved me over to her desk with a question.
“What if I have a sound that I don’t only love or only hate?”
“Something you have more complicated feelings about?” I asked.
“Absolutely. Write it,” I said, then paused. “Did you have something in mind?”
She nodded. “The sound of a gun.”
The summer that I moved to the United States was the summer that Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson. As fall came on and I started my first semester of graduate school, the sound of a gun was echoed by a swell of protests along 125th street, hundreds of voices chanting while helicopters circled above: Hands up! Don’t Shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot!
When I teach college freshmen, sometimes we read about the rhetoric of gun violence, sometimes students choose to research gun control, sometimes we analyze Childish Gambino’s viral music video, each gun-punctuated shot. Sometimes, when my students are doing group work, I stand near the door where I have a clearer view. As they discuss the structure of their essays—Intro, Body, Conclusion—break that body into paragraphs and rearrange them, I read down the list that’s posted on the wall—Avoid, Barricade, Confront. I imagine all the bodies in the room rearranging, trying to find a structure that will allow us to survive.
My graduate education was marked by a string of gunshots, each one perforating our studious silence. The shooting of Tamir Rice by a cop in Ohio, the shooting of a historic black church in Charleston, the shooting of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, the shooting of a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Gunshots pierce through me and Abrihym. – Christian, 7th grade
By the time I finished the two years of my degree, in the same way that I had ceased to hear the New York City sirens at night, the sound of a gun had been deadened by its frequency. In the three years since grad school that I’ve been teaching in New York’s public schools, there have been exactly 100 school shootings in the United States. This number, of course, is likely incomplete. Wikipedia has a hard time keeping up.
Last week, at the doctor’s office for blood results, I watched as the waiting room TV broadcast another volley of gunshots: this time in a park just blocks from a Brownsville school where I’ve taught poetry the past three years. 12 struck, 11 wounded, 1 dead. We shook our heads together, each of us waiting with our sicknesses, counted the numbers out like a prescription, counted them out like rosary beads.
The sound of a gun comes in hashtag bursts and then silences again. #thoughtsandprayers #thoughtsandprayers #thisisamerica
I am using police shootings, school shootings, and mass shootings interchangeably because I am overwhelmed. They are not interchangeable. Statistics are not interchangeable. Bodies are not interchangeable. Lives are not interchangeable.
Different kinds of guns make different sounds. An expert can tell the guns apart that way. I am not an expert. I am not an expert but I have shot a gun.
It smells like dried grapes. Broken bodies. People using guns. – David, 7th grade
In his pop-art painting, Roy Lichtenstein writes the sound of a gun: TAKKA TAKKA. The comic dots he paints with might be little gunshots themselves. A related work: BRATATAT!
(Not to be confused with Brattata). See also: Crak, Voomp, Whaam, Brat, Varoom. His only silent canvas: pointed at the viewer, the barrel of a just-fired gun.
At the end of the day, when I come home exhausted and need some way to unwind, I watch crime shows, cop shows, spy shows, anything with guns. Sometimes I fall asleep to the sound of TV-serialized shooting.
Headshot I’m dead shot but my parents miss when my bed rocked
I’m still forgot like every other black person who got shot
– Isaiah, 8th Grade
In my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, the city council recently released a crowdsourced mapping tool where anyone can mark a place they feel unsafe. The most dangerous place is the downtown, the suburbs, the subway, the highway, your backyard.
I was in the woods then BOOM the gunshot. In an instant I was dead because of my fragile body. -Diana, 7th grade
First, the click of the safety being released, or the click as the hammer cocks.
Second, the flash when high-pressure gases ignite in the barrel and quickly expand.
Third, the crack as a bullet splits air into shockwaves, piercing the speed of sound.
“The sound of a gun,” she said, and I left her to write.
Later, at the end of class, after her classmates had read aloud their poems about sounds like nails on chalkboards or rain on a roof, the student called me over again.
“I want to make sure nobody ever reads this,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, and suggested that she fold up the poem and take it with her.
As she tucked the paper into her backpack, I asked, “was it a good thing to write?”
She didn’t answer right away.
“I think so.”
Erika Luckert is a poet, writer, and educator. Her work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, CALYX, Room Magazine, Tampa Review, F(r)iction, Atticus Review, Boston Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA in Poetry, Erika has taught creative and critical writing at public schools and colleges across New York City. In 2017, she was awarded the 92Y Discovery Poetry Prize. Originally from Edmonton, Canada, Erika is currently a PhD student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Artwork by: Dragan