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What gun violence looks like, in one powerful poem

Poet Aziza Barnes is obsessed with what we say when we think no one is listening.

Often, that unguarded language will expose a lot about our relationships to the power systems that govern the U.S., especially race, she said.

“There are so many terms in black and brown communities for saying the wrong things,” she said. “There are so many hidden ways we police ourselves that just don’t apply to certain people.”

Barnes grew up in Los Angeles, a child of lawyers and voracious readers, writing about the coded ways people talk about race.

For instance, when people talk about incarceration, it almost seems like they are talking about killing insects, she said. “‘Well, they need to be in jail, they can’t invade our spaces’ — it’s the same language we use to [justify] murdering insects,” she said.

“I Could Ask, But I Think They Use Tweezers” grew from Barnes’ long struggle to find the language to talk about the murder of a friend. He was shot and killed at 18, just before he planned to train to be a firefighter. (She asked us not to share his name out of respect for his family’s privacy.)

The poem, told in broken but interconnected fragments, parallels the physical effects of gun violence on the body — how bullets break apart a system. “It’s all very firmly connected, and if one part is struggling to survive, then the rest are compensating for that part,” she said.

These stories are not uncommon in a country that does not value black life, Barnes said. “I’d be hard-pressed to find someone close to me that hasn’t had to deal with something like this,” she said. “It’s more than a tragedy. It’s disgraceful.”

Gun violence, and its effect on communities of color, “can’t be solved with political correctness, or an idea of political correctness, or any more police or any more prisons,” she said. “We have to interrogate why black bodies are viewed as disposable bodies and the behavior that comes along with that.”

You can watch Barnes read the poem above or read it below.

I Could Ask, But I Think They Use Tweezers

the shoulder isllllllla complicated organlllllfemorallllllllllllllllartery lymphlllnodes tendons all those joints iflllllla bullet goes
thru you there’s alsolllllllthe clothingllllllllohlllllyeah what did you thinkllllllI mean if it’s just thisllllllllthen that’s different but
if it’sllllllltwo layers of thatllllthose are other impurities the bodylllllllllllllllllllllllllldoes it’s job just one
lllllllllllllllllllllllllllfunction to release what can’t stay he walked into the ER smiledlllllllllllllllllllllll“I need a doctorllllllthanks
lllllllllman” blood stops moving to the bigllllllllllllllllltowns the brain is a big town the heart is a big town the kidneys are
llllllllllllllllllllllhot spots like Vegas builtllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllto handle armies on vacation the blood learnsllllto bend another
way like the legs of a cranelllllllllllllllllllllthey make bullets differentlllllllllllnow-a-daysllllllllllllllllllin thellllllllllllllgood-ole-days
llllllllla bullet went in and out andllllllllllllllllllllllllthe holes matched now alllllllllll.22llllllllllllla .38llllllexpands in the body
absorbs like a tamponlllllllllllllllfunctionlllllllllllllllllllllllllpull in all lifellllllllhe was ordering drive thru foodlllllllllllllMcDonalds
food notlllllllllllllllreally food maybe likellllllllllfrench fries maybe likelllllllllllla Sprite maybe like a #2
lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllthings that don’t feel like food in the mornings downlllllllllllllllllllllllllthe street from my house
lllllllllllfrom his mama house a clogllllllllllllllllllllat the 3rd counter this guy has a gun a gun haslllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllan
operation has composition is orchestralllllllllllllllllllllllis an organ of some complication ephemeral
lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllthe bullets are small a shoulder is innocuous until you become a nurse the only
lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllreason he died was speed and proximity but if it’s a couplelllllllllllllllllllllllayers of cloth well you
have to get that out too

Aziza Barnes is blk & alive. Born in Los Angeles, Barnes currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Aziza’s first full length collection, “I be but i ain’t” is forthcoming from YesYes Books. Aziza is a poetry & non-fiction editor at Kinfolks Quarterly, a Callaloo fellow, a graduate from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a current candidate for an MFA in Poetry at University of Mississippi.