I am not a poet. If you’ve taken a poetry course with me; you know this to be true. As a narrative writer, I have trouble adhering to the rules of verse and leaving room for white spaces; my poems tend to veer into prose poetry/lyric essay territory. Despite my lack of natural poetic voice, I do consider myself to be a lover of poetry. I’ve had wonderful professors who have helped me understand that appreciating poetry isn’t a love-hate binary. Rather, poetry can speak to anyone and everyone in a myriad of ways.
Over the course of this pandemic year, poetry has percolated even more into what I read and helped me navigate a changing space. In moments of anger, sadness, fear or isolation, reading poetry provides me an outlet for cathartic release. During moments of calm, it is poetry that shakes me awake.
This past week, I turned to poetry again to help carry the weight of the recent news headlines. I have found myself ruminating on Claudia Rankine’s poem Weather —published last June in response to George Floyd’s murder—which you can read and listen to here.
After Derek Chauvin was convicted on Tuesday, I hesitated to celebrate or allow myself to hope. Of course, demanding accountability is important, but convicting a cop doesn’t change the system that allowed a Black man to be murdered in plain sight at the hands of police. The following day, when I saw the news that Ma’khia Bryant, a Black teen had been shot four times by militarized police, the numbness I was feeling was replaced with a sinking pit of heartbreak and anger.
These feelings were ones I was not able to put into words, but after revisiting Rankine’s poem, which evokes images from the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed, I was able to process these thoughts and bring them through the surface.
In Rankine’s poem, weather becomes a metaphor for not just the political climate of this past year, but also the history of persistent patterns of systemic racism and police brutality in our country. Rankine writes, “I say weather but I mean/ a form of governing that deals out death/ and names it living,” commenting on how the very air we breathe is weaponized through its deprivation or contamination. Rankine’s evocation of “I can’t breathe” materializes the reality of racism and police violence.
Rankine’s poem is filled with alliteration and consonance, creating a rhythm of deliberate syncopated breath that serves a powerful act of resistance to the fact that breath and breathing have been systematically denied and weaponized in communities of color.
Weather offers a space to reflect and process the anger and heartbreak of living in a world plagued with destructive forces of violence, hate, and injustice. Poet Tracy K. Smith writes that “poems don’t just deliver truth, they nudge something already alive within us into consciousness.” For me, beyond demonstrating a powerful mastery of language, Rankine’s poem offers a kind of hope while giving us agency. She writes: “We’re out/ to repair the future,” stirring us as readers to take part in rebuilding and fighting for a more just world.
Reading, writing and sharing poetry has always been a political act, but written word alone cannot undo white supremacy. So many writers of color grapple with having their work treated as a kind of “how-to guide” for achieving the title of “anti-racist” but the very promise of achieving such an enlightened state is tainted. To only turn to writers of color for lessons about race is reductive and throws other powerful lessons out the window. There is so much more that we can learn from a poem or book about verse, language, syntax, and human nature, but decolonizing our literary spaces is still important.
Changing “weather that’s here” starts with actively seeking out diverse voices and not just during Black History month or when anti-racist reading lists are trending on Twitter. As Audre Lorde reminds us in her memoir The Cancer Journals, when voices are silenced and ignored, “we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own” (16).
Shriya Perati is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] Thought Experiments runs alternate Thursdays this semester.