From childhood, on Pitkin and Easton Avenue, I have not been
As others were: I have not seen—
Portals eclipsed by the clamor of the boulevard, a wet season brings
In and washes all who lie Face Down Hands Up. No common spring
But a dog barking, and brushfoot nymphalid butterflies left untaken
From the cracks in Brownsville’s streets. What carried what awakened
In the ground-dirt, where Face Down Hands Up, at the same tone
Performs the sunlight, performs the 15 police car Burletta per musica — I alone —
Then, in unconscious crescendo, the unison of municipal trees, in the dawn
The stormy night heaved the yellow-taped lines, the lifeless chalk-drawn
Scratching every depth of a family noted and quickly eating brunch to ID, ill
From portals of new seasons of violence, the pastoral remains still
In me — without being overly-performative binds in me still
From the torrent of mass policing, the torrent of Right(eous), a fountain
Like urgency, like the migration of brushfoot butterflies, up mountains
From West Virginia North to Brownsville, Brooklyn, and rolled
Around the sunlight, swerved with never-ending crime, a gold
Like a tint on a Chevrolet passing the local playground, lighting up inside the sky,
As all passes me by, where is the music, where is the sign, Face Down Hands Up
And the cloud that took the form of a dry season —
Sensually teases us like Heaven (if ever blue)
There is a demon in full view –
I rise and put my hands down and stand up. Bathed by new pre-torrential light.
Click here to read Jonathan Andrew Pérez on the origin of the poem.
Image: “Brownsville, Brooklyn NY, 1972” by Winston J. Vargas, licensed under CC 2.0.
Jonathan Andrew Pérez:
The poem “Alone” comes from the law enforcement phrase “face down hands up” and the feeling/relationship with that command. “Face down hands up” is meant both as an urgent, commanding phrase of law enforcement and a trope on structural racism. It commands control over the recipient, but also stands up to the ID-ing structure. It gets up and pushes off the ground.
The poem is a run-on sentence for a reason. The lines singularly stand with the “crescendo of the phrase” and the “violence and torrent(ial)” rain that is the long-history of 2020-2021. I say “alone”, because as a person of color, I often find myself in the position of “responding” to ID discursive moments. I push back on the moralizing and pathologizing of the black and brown community by mass policing, but also as an anti-thesis to any reason to be forced to any sort of ID. It signifies the place where language falls flat.
The end-rhyme, literally, rises from the ground up – and takes ownership over an urban-pastoral and Northward migration of the butterflies. I am interested, as a poet, in the re-generational metaphor (from the Great Migration to the settlement of generations in Brooklyn and Baltimore) and the conflicting burden of taking on systemic bias and making light and living in that double-consciousness. The pastoral does this for me, as it is grounding, reclaiming, and righteously owned.
At a larger view – all of my poems, from the three books I have out, revolve around history, equity, (in)justice and the language of the law. As an attorney in criminal justice, I find much is left out of the “bookings” and diminishment by the law to IDing an individuals’ hope, humanity, dignity, and voice. For me, poetry is “true” histories of injustice, much like ethnographic narratives, and non-binary poems that do not conform to structural definitions.
Lastly, I find there is a memorialization that happens when the world is described. Much like British Romanticism, but more peculiarly, John Clare, there is an equitable ownership with the situation of systemic racism that must take place now, in language, poetry, and experience. I aim to give a voice to that an aesthetic experience of beauty to divine a future that is both designed by the individual and proffers an imagined collective that may not exist yet.