Safety Drill, 2022
Please gather your bodies
against the interior wall,
out of view of the window,
but spread yourselves six feet
apart to give room for the .223
shells to pass safely by. Don’t breathe
in a virus, don’t breathe
loudly, don’t breathe.
Pray breathlessly while I turn off
the lights and wedge the door tight
to keep viral loads contained.
I will sanitize the desks
of violence and wash hands
of policymakers while my own
chafe from exposure.
When the intercom crackles
All Clear I will light my candle
to Saint Jude—but imagine he’s
actually Walt Whitman—and usher
you back to your tidy rows so that
I may prepare you for the next
calamity to manifest itself. So that
you may avoid bullets and pathogens
without moving from your cold plastic seats.
Learning to Shut Up
When a student tells me about
past trauma, of course my advice
is to write a poem. No, firmly.
I don’t write about him.
Nor should she, I realize. Why
revisit her uncle’s beery breath,
his hands, her 10-year-old body.
Poems can shape chaos, but quiet
can too. Not a gagged silence,
not the silence of whispered
threats, but the hushed
release of a river birch’s
saw-toothed leaves, the
sibilant peeling of its bark
to gather light through
a sun-starved winter.
Reading Li Po in the Laundromat
is easily the most obnoxious thing
I did this weekend. Oh, I bet
I’ll be the only one there reading
8th century Chinese poetry!
But I quickly realized the dickishness
of this thanks to the twin boys planted
on the floor playing with their Hot Wheels
while dad stuffed clothes into machines,
measured Country Apple scented Gain,
and doled out quarters. Their collection
was solid: at least a dozen cars each, ranging
from classic Mustangs to futuristic
ice cream trucks. Revving and screeching
resonated from their mouths as their
small Black hands drove their small die-cast
cars. Outside, a biting January and a hostile
America. But here, in the SuperSudz?
They are gods moving their subjects
with no predestined narrative, just
rolling and crashing and rhhhrrr
and skrrrt and bbshhhhhhh. The rest
of the universe has melted away like
ketchup stains in the warm sudsy tumble
behind them. Dad glances and grins
as he moves two damp heaps into
the dryer. And I’m resisting the urge
to slide in a Li Po line here just to wink
at my own cleverness. So, I’ll remember
the legend of his death: the drunken
poet fell from his boat as he tried
to embrace the moon and drowned.
Why would I want to follow his path
when I can tread on these smooth
linoleum roads, rolling freely,
a gentle hand guiding me home?
James Dickson teaches English and Creative Writing at Germantown High School, just outside of Jackson, MS. An MFA graduate from the Bennington Writing Seminars, he is the recipient of Mississippi Arts Commission fellowships, was named High School Literary Magazine Advisor of the Year by the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association, and was invited to speak at the National Educators Association 50th anniversary celebration “The Promise of Public Education.” His poems, book reviews, and essays appear in The Common, Ruminate, Hospital Drive, The Louisiana Review, Spillway, Slant, Poetry Quarterly, McSweeney’s, Sylvia, and his first collection, Some Sweet Vandal, was published by Kelsay Books this May. He lives in Jackson with his wife, their son, and a small menagerie of animals.
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