eat salt/ gaze at the ocean

Poetry from Junie Désil
eat salt / gaze at the ocean by Junie Désil
This poem is excerpted from the collection eat salt/ gaze at the ocean by Junie Désil. Published by talonbooks (2020). Excerpt appears with permission from the publisher.

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Junie Désil

I can't breathe

words gasped in death
breathe life into Black Lives
matter i have searched looked at the names
those who have died at the hands of this direct line
from and descendants of slave owners
from and descendants of the system
descended of a system that violently captured and enslaved
Black people
law enforcement
law enforcement

this system, its heritage the destruction of Black bodies

and so:

this poem you are reading took me three years to write. if we’re counting and being accurate, it took me over twenty years to write. i took a snapshot of 2016. i counted. over two hundred deaths in one year. if we’re being comprehensive, this right here does not include the dead from the transatlantic slave voyage, those who leapt to their deaths, who died beneath the cargo hold, once stolen from their ancestral lands. those who died in violent capitalist servitude, who died in violent encounters with white holders of enslaved Black people, this list does not include those who died scattered about the various colonialist projects and expansions on stolen lands. this list does not include those lynched. this list does not include those incarcerated in the ongoing carceral projects – a direct line from the institution of slavery. this list does not include those who have died from any of the leading causes of death among Black people, who are the result of continued structural and systemic racism underpinned by violent and ongoing land theft and dispossession of Indigenous Peoples. this list contains recognizable names of people who died in 2016. this list also contains names unrecognizable to me or to you. this list does not contain the names of Black folks further marginalized even in their deaths – Black trans folks. they will need another page. this list does not include sex workers preyed upon and discarded – they too will need another page. this list does not contain the ones disappeared and forgotten by most. this list is a year of headlines darkened by these deaths. sometimes the headlines are bold and loud and other times tiny columns after a deep rabbit-hole search – “see more” or “related stories.” this list is a list of names of Black people who have died south of this “border,” so you might almost want to say this list is not Canada – i dare you. this list is an i dare you to tell me that this is not about race, that this is not anti-Black, that this is not purposeful. this is a piece that will go on for a while till you feel as paralyzed as i continue to be. till you feel your heart leap out and flop wetly, thud dully outside its protective cage. this is 2016. only a year, a snapshot of names that may or may not have gone viral, that may or may not have been distributed with “trigger warning,” “content warning.” this list contains the names of Black people who had faces, who had stories, who had aspirations and hopes and even if they didn’t, we had hopes and aspirations for them. this list does not tell you of their dreams, their joy and pain, their struggle. this list of names had pictures attached to these names. sepia-toned, grainy, black-and-white pictures of young men tatted up, white-tanked, with babies in their arms. this is a list of boys under nineteen, under eighteen, under seventeen, under sixteen, under fifteen, under fourteen, just thirteen. this is a list (albeit smaller) of women, young women under nineteen, under seventeen, under sixteen, under fifteen, just thirteen. with children, holding their babies, selfied, dazzling smiles aimed at the camera. this is a list of older folks, sixty-one (!), seventy-two (!), who should have lived to see two generations of data (DNA) transfer. this list contains the names of folks murdered by the states’ handlers, by law enforcement originating in the violent need to protect stolen land for land holders, their forebearers, catchers of enslaved folks, their legacy assured. this piece will keep going till you feel almost numb, almost as numb as i feel, till all the names bleed together into unrecognizable inky blood. till you, in an exercise in futility, attempt to memorize these names. i will have read these names over and over and over and over till: survivors’ guilt. till you mute posts/people on facebook because not today. this list does not include all the names of the Black people whose deaths inspired riots, inspired movements for us by us. this list should make your guts twist on themselves. should make you feel horror. should make you wonder what fresh hell we live in – what horror story is this. this list that you can’t see but surely can search should make you weep, in shame, in anger. this list should make you double over in pain, this list should make you feel each bullet hole, each taser shock, each chokehold, violent pavement slam, black boot(s), fists, palms - sympathy pains not empathy pains. this list should make you curl fetal. this list does not include (of course) those who survived, who survive, who put one foot in front of the other. this list of names does not offer contextual information. this list does not tell you that every day i roll a kernel of fear rosary-bead-like between my fingers, praying that those i love do not end up on this list. this list does not tell you that there’ve been close encounters and that my fears are well founded.

this list is 2016. a snapshot of those killed.
by gunshot
by taser
by death while in custody
by vehicular strike
by unknown
by other
by violent encounter with law enforcement

i don’t name them how
could i make space in this heart-mausoleum in case
practise saying the names closest to me   recall them
i want to ask if you ever worry if your heart squeezes and holds till the
next day
relaxes only fitfully at night anxiety follows
disrupted circadian rhythm

(for a made-up identity)

Father’s never met a cop who doesn’t respond to respect
#NotAllCops he tells me:
i was walking by two cops in a rough part of Toronto

there were young Black men with nothing to do their pants down low i
walked by and
said hello and they nodded

in a Facebook post to a well-known Black activist: you must have been
doing something
they don’t just stop you for walking while Black in a park

anyway, smoking in parks is illegal in Vancouver

my father’s been detained by police because a neighbour called
fearing for his mental state
but #NotAllCops yet Black and mental health and and
and just Black = death by cop

a college professor stopped on his way to work because he “fit the description”
5′11″, 160 lb., puffy jacket and a knit cap   grateful for the sister

in the red coat she watched while he was being detained

i too am grateful for the friend who stopped with me at the corner
of Commercial and Broadway
he Indigenous, i Black – the intersection where cops police
Indigenous and Black youth

stopped with me to witness a Black man being arrested he stopped and
cops swarm crowd parts, eddy around the obstruction

stopped and asked if i wanted to go closer   asked if i wanted to witness
if i wanted to stop and feel my heart squeeze blood

my mouth dry limbs helpless my mind racing wondering: is he?
did he? shame
coursing cold face hot did i want to witness regardless of what
he did

or didn’t do witness being Black at the hand of cops did i want to
take responsibility
for this man face ground down into icy pavement neck at an
unnatural angle

back weighted black boots judge drown deep in respectability i
don’t ask
is he okay?

what i need to ask is if i’m the kind that would leap cars and part bodies plant feet
in front shout down the cops and crowds

lift up our right to be

my feet rooted in place says i’m the kind who might as well tut-tut silently
move along

i let you down
forgive me
forgive me
forgive me

Junie Désil
Junie Désil is a Haitian-Canadian poet who has performed at various literary events and festivals. Her work has appeared in Room Magazine, PRISM International, The Capilano Review, and CV2. View bio.
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