By Laura Misch
faceless and colorless,
just like America
—Joseph Ross, “In the Courtroom” (Part of the “Trayvon Martin: Requiem”)
On Tuesday, April 17th, the University of Portland had the pleasure of hosting poet Joseph Ross, who read from his newest poetry collection—Ache (2017). The collection focuses on the subject of race in America, with poems that address everything from the music of John Coltrane to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.
The evening began with Ross reading his poem “On John Coltrane’s ‘Reverend King.’” The song that inspired this piece is Coltrane’s musical interpretation of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s experience throughout the Civil Rights Movement (you can listen to it here). Ross’s poem is inherently layered, as he charts the progression of a song, which itself charts the history of civil rights. Together both song and poem work to reveal the struggle for racial equality by “singing” of “riot in a new tongue:/ the language of the un-heard.”
However, in this contributor’s opinion, the poems that had the deepest impact were the ones in which Ross examines the untimely deaths of young African-American men. Many of us have heard of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that claimed the lives of four young girls—all under the age of fifteen—in September of 1963. But, what many of us didn’t know is that these girls were not the only ones to lose their lives that day. Ross taught us about the deaths of two African-American boys that also took place in Birmingham on the same day. Johnny Robinson was just sixteen when he was shot in the back by a police officer. Virgil Ware was only thirteen when he was shot by two white teenagers, while riding a bicycle. Ross dedicated a poem to each them but ultimately decided to read only one given the fact that these pieces can be emotionally taxing for both the audience and the speaker alike.
(Johnny Robinson & Virgil Ware)
“Requiem for Virgil Ware” opens with a haunting but powerful image: “the handlebars of a boy’s bicycle/ can be a crucifixion if the year/ is America.” Ross presents Ware as a Christ-like figure, so we hold our breath as we wait for the inevitable sacrifice. And although we already know the ending, we cannot avoid the sorrow that comes when Ware longs for his final moments “to last forever.”
Another potent poem is Ross’s “Eight Ways of Looking at the George Zimmerman Trial.” As the title suggests, the piece reflects on the actions of George Zimmerman—the man who murdered Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Ross explores this crime as well as what it says about our country as a whole. The sixth way of looking at the trial is particularly striking, as it comes directly from Zimmerman’s perspective. He observes how Martin “looks like/ a crime and the President/ at the same time.” With this line, Ross showcases the in-between space that people of color are forced to occupy. Having an African-American president hasn’t cured racism; citizens still deal with discrimination every day, which is why the eighth way of looking at the trial states, “We live an impossible geography.”
Nevertheless, amidst all of the tragedy outlined in his poetry, Ross still managed to deliver a message of hope. He talked about how the elegy is too often “underrated,” as it has the ability to “bring people back in a meaningful way.” He was also adamant in his belief that the world needs poets, especially in our current political climate. Ross emphasized the fact that “our words have meanings” and that there is “nothing different about the future without imagination.” We just need to be willing to take a risk and be fearless.
I am not sure how
to greet you so I look
at your wet, grass-stained shoes,
then back at your seventeen-
year-old face. I say:
“Come in, out of the rain.”
—Joseph Ross, “Nelson Mandela Speaks to Trayvon Martin”
*Photos of Johnny Robinson & Virgil Ware courtesy of AL.com
*Photo of Trayvon Martin protest sign by Werth Media CC BY-NC 2.0