• Amber Shockley

Other People's Poetry: "The Cops Behind Us, I Hold My Breath" by Porsha Olayiwola

The absolute majesty of craft in this poem.


It almost shames me to say that, because the maddening pain chiseled for the reader’s witness is born of such evil that you’d expect it to defy appreciation of human art. The only way to beat the devil is to reveal rather than attempt to contain him, and my God, my God, Porsha Olayiwola has done that. Published in the February 2021 issue of wildness, The Cops Behind Us, I Hold My Breath remembers Ashaunti Butler, Laniya Miller, and Dominique Battle, three teenage girls who drowned in 2016 without benefit of rescue by the police who were present at their deaths, four years before George Floyd suffocated under a police officer’s knee.


“& what gave chase to them in the dim

break of day when the sirens jailed the night—

the cops, grinning after realizing the collision,

stood at the water’s bank & teethed like the

grill of a pontiac smiling into the mouth of a

pond while the lips of the girls closed to hold

breath or widened to wail—the cops, too

worried about mudding their shoes, their suits,

while laniya, dominique & ashaunti sank”


I want to detail the entire poem, but this is Other People’s Poetry - it isn’t mine to post in full. The whole point of this series is to support poetry, poets, and journals publishing poets. I put a snippet of the poem here, and refer you to where you can read more.


It isn’t always easy to select a snippet though, and the architecture of this poem is such that removing a few lines feels as correct as lifting the roof off a house. That said, any given selection of this poem works to give you a glimpse of the entire poem’s excellence - there are no weak or rotten columns.


In fact, the structural soundness of the poem, the rushing way one enjambed line flows into another, racing over even the few end stopped lines like unmarked speed bumps, no squealing tires or taps of the brake, is of course one of many devices that bring us fully into the panic and ruthless horror of what is described in the poem.


It is perhaps because of the interdependence of the lines that I am loath to even take my usual tack of examining each individual line on its own.


So, what I want to do for this deep dive is just look at the music of the entire selection. Music is the thing here. As usual, I’ll highlight the notes.


“& what gave chase to them in the dim

break of day when the sirens jailed the night—

the cops, grinning after realizing the collision,

stood at the water’s bank & teethed like the

grill of a pontiac smiling into the mouth of a

pond while the lips of the girls closed to hold

breath or widened to wail—the cops, too

worried about mudding their shoes, their suits,

while laniya, dominique & ashaunti sank”


A cacophony of sound, yes? At this point, you might start to think that this note highlighting thing I’m doing to poems is a bunch of bullshit. Words have sounds, you might think. The repetition is coincidental. Maybe serendipitous, at best. Probably even happens in regular speech, by accident. You can make anything of anything, if you try hard enough. Is the poet even aware of this, or doing it on purpose?


Well, yes. Yes, they are. That’s craft. And that’s part of why I admire the poems, and the poets, so much. It happens at different levels, but behind every level is intent, purpose, and awareness. At the level of alliteration, the poet is absolutely and most obviously making decisions about sound. But outside of deliberate alliteration, the poet, by nature, is intensely attuned with every aspect of language - the definition, connotation, and effect of every word - including sound.


That doesn’t mean that the poet sits down and chooses certain sounds, then sifts through their infinite word bank to map the sounds onto the page. It does mean that the poet is carefully choosing every word as they go forward, carefully selecting for, among other things, sound. Choosing, here, “grinning,” not “smiling,” and “realizing,” not “seeing,” for instance.


Poet as hypnotist. Listen to the sound of my voice.


Listen to the sounds of this poem. I’ve categorized them into three groups:


m - l - n - w


g - b - p - d


s


Let’s talk about what is happening in this poem. Three young girls are drowning, their car moving forward into a body of water, while men, police officers, look on.


You could read this poem and think that the horror of this moment is simply spoken, that the fear and outrage you feel while reading is a result, solely, of the magnitude of evil being described. You would be right to feel that fear and outrage, regardless of the delivery.


But please, please don’t overlook what this incredible poet is doing. She reaches so much further than bold, bald delivery of this horror. Incredibly, inexplicably, she is crafting. Even this.


I mentioned at the beginning that I felt some hesitance at acknowledging craft when the event of the poem itself is so profoundly grievous. Yet, I think it is important to look at the crafting, and wonder at it, and yes, even revel in it. The craft happening here is victory in action - victory even at the very moment of memoriam. If the poet-survivor can find the strength and skill to craft around these moments, readers owe that craft, and that poet, the honor of recognition.


The craft of music happens by use of sound to not just invoke a mood or emotion, but to effectively mimic the actual sounds of the event.


In the previous post, I pointed out that m, w and l sounds are muted, lulling, as in dream. Here, along with n, these muted sounds have an entirely different effect. Trapped in a car, screams are muted. The thuds of fists beating on glass are muted. The splash and submerge of a car into deep water is more muted than you might think. It is nearly silent. With the muted m, l, n and w sounds, the poet places us, auditorily, at the scene. This is a scene of deadly silence, of muted voices - girls dying unheard in the dark, surrounded by men that keep their sins an unspoken secret.


At less frequency, there are g, b, p and d sounds. These are also slightly muted sounds, made with soft percussion of the lips and tongue. At one point, the poet focuses specifically on the girls’ lips, creating an intimacy with their fear and survival drive that is almost unbearable, heightened by the g, b, p and d sounds which mimic the mouth movements and breathy, sputtering noises that might occur when holding your head just above rising water, trying to breathe without taking in liquid. The poet has placed us not just at the scene, but has unflinchingly taken us inside the car with the girls. We are made to hear and ache at their helplessness.


I want to point out, particularly, the brilliant mimicry at work in the phrasing when the poet takes us inside the car with: “closed to hold” and “widened to wail.” To vocalize the d sounds of closed and hold, we must briefly place our tongues at the roof of our mouths, behind the teeth, indeed closing off our ability to gulp air through the mouth. That airway is blocked by the tongue. To pronounce the wi and wa sounds of “widened to wail,” we might also open our mouths enough to cry out. More than witness, the poet is forcing us, our mouths, to embody the experience that the girls suffered.


Finally, there are s sounds throughout. To my mind, s is always serpent, hiss. It is danger, threat, betrayal. It is gas leak. It is defaming whisper. I can not call to mind any time that s sounds have been used to indicate or foreshadow something good. Here, appropriately, we see it most often used in association with the police at the scene - cops who stood in their shoes and suits, smiling.


I’ll end with some notes that I did not highlight above because they are not found throughout, but the sounds and mouth movement are important nonetheless - these are discordant notes struck in the song. They stand out, and there’s a reason, a choice behind them. In other words, there’s craft.


With “teethed like the grill” we read vowel sounds that, when spoken aloud, pull the lips off the teeth - again, perhaps mimicking what the poet is describing. So far, the poet has used “grinned” and next she will use “smiling.” Between, we have “teethed,” and I at once immediately read this as another word for grinning and yet wonder what it could really mean. Why this choice, beyond the effect of sound?


Babies teethe. They cut their teeth. The things we first learned or experienced, we say we cut our teeth on. Cut. Learn. There’s a certain ripping and violence associated with learning, growing, changing. But, the men in this poem aren’t shown growing or learning. They stay short-hearted and sinister. The girls, their lives stopped, aren’t allowed to grow into the women they would have become.


So, perhaps that is the wrong direction to take it. Teethed is also slang for theft. The girls were accused of stealing the car they were driving. Later, “grill,” a slang for teeth, mouth, or adornment thereof, is used in its more formalized meaning with relation to the car, but, through simile, again is linked to the grinning police. There’s also the aggression of smiling into the mouth - up close, defiant.


What’s clear is that there is word play - a dance, a mingling of meaning, slang, imagery and sound that shuffles and links the police and the girls. There is a creation and/or handling of multiple mouths - the girls, the police, the pond, the poet/speaker, the reader - all working, all part of the roaring machine that is the poem. All intentional. All purposeful. All masterful craft.


Last, we’ll look at some end rhyme that is thrown in for good measure. It’s used sparingly, judiciously, and, once again, to link the police. “the cops, too,” “their shoes, their suits.” Here, we have an oo, oo sound. We use “ooo” to express a range of emotion, from amazed wonder to furrowed-brow concern. Because of that, it is the perfect sound choice to overlay this moment of absolute terror that the police have been reported to have treated with nonchalance. When the tires of the car hit the water, there should have been an immediate “oo” of alert and action. Instead, the police are suspected of enjoying the moment.


You should read this poem in full. It is difficult. You should still read it. Anyone, everyone should read it, but especially if you are a poet. I don’t see how you have any excuse not to read it if you are a poet. Read it and learn how to dance on a twisted ankle, in a theater where patrons have billy clubs hidden under their chairs. Learn how to write a poem under, and on, the worst circumstances.


* In this post, I refer to Porsha Olayiwola as poet-survivor. I did this because I believe that, when an entire people are subject to ongoing abuse, violence, mistreatment and injustice, each individual incident is in fact experienced - and survived - culturally. Therefore, we must recognize each individual of the culture as a survivor, and let that recognition inform our appreciation of their victories. This poem is one such victory - the victory of speech, of music, of craft over death and silence.


** I usually try to break up my wall of text with GIFs. There weren't any GIFs in this post because at no point did I feel that humor was appropriate.


** If you are the poet, and anything I have put forth here is wrong or offensive, please do let me know.





© 2020 by Amber Shockley.