Thursday, August 13, 2020

American Gun

American Gun arrived in the mail today, so of course I sat down in the back yard and read it straight through, acknowledgements, writer bios, and all, for the Sealey Challenge, Day 13, while feeding nuts to a squirrel and listening to the breeze in the windchimes. It is a beautiful book on a horrific subject--gun violence--and truly a collaborative effort. American Gun is A Poem by 100 Chicagoans, edited by Chris Green (Big Shoulders Books, 2020). Big Shoulders Books is a publishing unit at DePaul University.

This book is free, and you can get it here, at Big Shoulders Books, in a variety of ways. "The editors ask that by taking a copy, you agree to support groups working on anti-violence efforts in Chicago." There's a list of organizations in the back, or you can choose your own. I belong to a local chapter of Moms Demand Action, part of a national organization working to reduce gun violence by raising awareness, teaching gun safety, and promoting sensible gun legislation. Chicago is having a hellish summer of gun violence, and I'll also use the book's list to target some extra help there. (Aauugh, "target.")

The group poem is a pantoum, a form with repeating lines that "mirror the semi-automatic firing of a weapon and also the seemingly endless cycle of shootings in Chicago," says editor Chris Green. "However," he goes on, 'the main title of this poem, American Gun, points to the gun epidemic as not simply a Chicago problem, but an American one." Indeed.

The poets writing together here, each composing two new lines while incorporating two lines given by another poet (as required by the pantoum form), include many I crossed paths with when I lived in Chicago: Tara Betts, cin salach, Jan Bottiglieri, Richard Jones, Valerie Wallace, Nina Corwin, Mike Puican, Mary Hawley, Barry Silesky, Virginia Bell, Patricia McMillen, Edward Hirsch, and I bet I missed some, as the poets' names are vertical beside the horizontal stanzas. Oh, and sometimes you must turn the book sideways to read the stanzas with long lines, a marvelous part of the book's design.

Here's a gorgeous stretch of heartbeat, heartbreaks, and horror that reveals the pantoum form, verses 46-49, written by these 4 poets in order, Marty McConnell, Joshua Carey, Edward Hirsch, and Christina Pugh.

     Each heart-beat timed, a ricochet,
     a holy echo. It's hard to remember our names,
     hard to breathe, take cover, bolt away
     from what's said of us through unfamiliar lips.

     A holy echo. It's hard to remember our names
     drowned by lead's loud whispering
     from what's said of us through unfamiliar lips.
     Run, hide, fight the false equivalents

     drowned by lead's loud whispering
     whispering a holy echo wholly unholy.
     Run, hide, fight the false equivalents
     to God, unholy god, who has withdrawn

     Whispering a holy echo wholly unholy,
     the device reverberates from human cochlea
     to God, unholy god, who has withdrawn
     his sinuous heavens far from America.

The book is printed on black and white pages, mostly black print on white pages, but also some white print on black pages, with red dot accents like drops of blood. Some words and phrases become images, echoes like gun reports or reverberations on facing pages. This, like the sideways pages, is the work of the book designer, Natalie Bontumasi, whose "creativity and expertise transformed American Gun into a visual poem," as praised by editor Chris Green.

Some of the wonderful poets in this book weren't even born when I left Chicago 20 years ago! They are the 16- and 17-year-old student poets whose words and experience are essential to American Gun. I loved reading everyone's bios as well as their stanzas. And this is definitely a contemporary pantoum, which admits variation from exact repetition (though most of the repetition is exact), allowing the poem to move forward (or sideways!) as needed.

Even if a single line sometimes stands out--"we could be alive to something better," written by Cecelia Pinto in her stanza and repeated by Larry Janowski in his (and I noticed those lines were often mirrored on the facing page by the designer!)--this is a beautiful sharing, truly a group effort. Sensible gun legislation is a group effort, too, and so is ending gun violence. Let's do it, together!

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