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5 Poems in Memory of the Robb Elementary School Shooting Victims

Memorial candles
Photo credit: Manfred Richter

Our gun violence nightmare strikes again. We’re mourning the nineteen students and two teachers who died yesterday in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Sixteen others were wounded. To honor their memory, we’re sharing these poems from Bullets into Bells. Edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, this collection is a powerful call to end American gun violence from celebrated poets and those most impacted.


“Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World”
By Martín Espada

For the community of Newtown, Connecticut,
where twenty students and six educators lost their
lives to a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School,
December 14, 2012

Now the bells speak with their tongues of bronze.
Now the bells open their mouths of bronze to say:
Listen to the bells a world away. Listen to the bell in the ruins
of a city where children gathered copper shells like beach glass,
and the copper boiled in the foundry, and the bell born
in the foundry says: I was born of bullets, but now I sing
of a world where bullets melt into bells. Listen to the bell
in a city where cannons from the armies of the Great War
sank into molten metal bubbling like a vat of chocolate,
and the many mouths that once spoke the tongue of smoke
form the one mouth of a bell that says: I was born of cannons,
but now I sing of a world where cannons melt into bells.

Listen to the bells in a town with a flagpole on Main Street,
a rooster weathervane keeping watch atop the Meeting House,
the congregation gathering to sing in times of great silence.
Here the bells rock their heads of bronze as if to say:
Melt the bullets into bells, melt the bullets into bells.
Here the bells raise their heavy heads as if to say:
Melt the cannons into bells, melt the cannons into bells.

Here the bells sing of a world where weapons crumble deep
in the earth, and no one remembers where they were buried.
Now the bells pass the word at midnight in the ancient language
of bronze, from bell to bell, like ships smuggling news of liberation
from island to island, the song rippling through the clouds.

Now the bells chime like the muscle beating in every chest,
heal the cracks in the bell of every face listening to the bells.
The chimes heal the cracks in the bell of the moon.
The chimes heal the cracks in the bell of the world.


“The Bullet, in Its Hunger”
By Ross Gay

The bullet, in its hunger, craves the womb
of the body. The warm thrum there. Begs always
release from the chilly, dumb chamber.
Look at this one whose glee
at escape was outshone only by the heavens
above him. The night’s even-keeled
breath. All things thus far dreams from
his cramped bunker. But now
the world. Let me be a ravenous diamond
in it, he thinks, chewing through the milky jawbone
of this handsome seventeen-year-old. Of course
he would love to nestle amidst the brain’s
scintillant catacombs (which, only for the boy’s dumb luck,
slipped away) but this will do. The bullet does
not, as the boy goes into shock, or as his best friend
stutters, palming the fluid wound, want to know the nature
of the conflict, nor the sound of the shooter’s
mother in prayer, nor the shot child’s future harmonies:
the tracheotomy’s muffled wheeze
threaded through the pencil’s whisper as the boy scrawls I’m
scared. No,
the bullet, like you, simply craves
the warmth of the body. Like you, only wants
to die in someone’s arms.


“The First Child Martyr at Illinois Elementary”
By Liz Rosenberg 

Children are so very graceful none
were killed
at Illinois Elementary
when that poor bedeviled woman
emptied her gun on the square-dance floor
—except one boy who stumbled
pushing his friend from the line of fire.
His body should not have been
in that place at that time.
He could not have been more
than eight or nine,
so what did he think about his life to
be so willing to desert it, leaping away
as if to climb ropes in the gym?
He was only a child, falling
like a player on the hardwood floor.
And what on earth did he know

that now we will never know?


“Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz”
By Matthew Olzmann 

You whom I could not save,
Listen to me.

Can we agree Kevlar
backpacks shouldn’t be needed

for children walking to school?
Those same children

also shouldn’t require a suit
of armor when standing

on their front lawns, or snipers
to watch their backs

as they eat at McDonalds.
They shouldn’t have to stop

to consider the speed
of a bullet or how it might

reshape their bodies. But
one winter, back in Detroit,

I had one student
who opened a door and died.

It was the front
door to his house, but

it could have been any door,
and the bullet could have written

any name. The shooter
was thirteen years old

and was aiming
at someone else. But

a bullet doesn’t care
about “aim,” it doesn’t

distinguish between
the innocent and the innocent,

and how was the bullet
supposed to know this

child would open the door
at the exact wrong moment

because his friend
was outside and screaming

for help. Did I say
I had “one” student who

opened a door and died?
That’s wrong.

There were many.
The classroom of grief

had far more seats
than the classroom for math

though every student
in the classroom for math

could count the names
of the dead.

A kid opens a door. The bullet
couldn’t possibly know,

nor could the gun, because
“guns don’t kill people,” they don’t

have minds to decide
such things, they don’t choose

or have a conscience,
and when a man doesn’t

have a conscience, we call him
a psychopath. This is how

we know what type of assault rifle
a man can be,

and how we discover
the hell that thrums inside

each of them. Today,
there’s another

shooting with dead
kids everywhere. It was a school,

a movie theater, a parking lot.
The world

is full of doors.
And you, whom I cannot save,

you may open a door
and enter

a meadow or a eulogy.
And if the latter, you will be

mourned, then buried
in rhetoric.

There will be
monuments of legislation,

little flowers made
from red tape.

What should we do? we’ll ask
again. The earth will close

like a door above you.
What should we do?

And that click you hear?
That’s just our voices,

the deadbolt of discourse
sliding into place.


“[When a child hears gunshots]”
By Meghan Privitello

When a child hears gunshots,
she will say Mom is beating
the pots and pans. She will say
It sounds like home. Let’s keep it
this way; our children
misinterpreting the sound of dying
as a crude percussion.
When they kneel at their beds
and ask God where he was
when their best friend stopped
being alive he will say
I was at the drive-thru,
I was so hungry I thought the gunshots
were my stomach begging for food.
He will say I know nothing
until strangers tell me about it first,
I could have bullet wounds in my hands
and I’d know nothing about what hurts
and doesn’t hurt. What a God; making
the world out of variations of madness,
refusing to hold its face in his hands
and saying You, you are mine.
It is not ours: the young blood,
the unfinished drawings,
the last blurry thoughts before a world
goes black. When God is busy wiping grease
from his mouth, we can stand in a line
with the dead in our backpacks,
next to our pencils and our snacks;
he won’t notice when
we give the whole damned world back.