Monday, February 25, 2013

#70: "Requiem" by J.D. Smith

~This poem previously appeared in The Raintown Review (2012).


A teddy bear, an R.I.P.
            Spray-painted on a wall,
An empty bottle mark the place
            That saw a young man fall.

His name reads like leftover type
            Or random Scrabble tiles
Appearing now, if not before,
            In transcripts and case files.

Perhaps a hard look or a word
            Translated into beef:
The seed unknown, the harvest come
            To customary grief.

What counsel could be offered here
            That wouldn’t be declined
As some attempt to, once again,
            Impose a whiter mind?

From habit, hope or vague good will
Some write checks and some vote.
Awaiting the desired effects
            Leaves ample time to note

A teddy bear, an R.I.P.
            Spray-painted on a wall,
An empty bottle mark the place
            That saw a young man fall.




“Requiem” marks a moment at the intersection of taking my dog on long walks, living in the Southwest quadrant of Washington, DC, and dealing with seasonally aggravated depression that can cause me to see everything through a filter of despair.    
            At the beginning of 2011 we frequently passed by a makeshift memorial something like the one described in the poem, on a transitional block between the increasingly pricey real estate near the Potomac and the low-rise housing projects to the east. This is where I have to fall back on cliché. While the presumably African-American victim and his survivors lived only blocks away, in many ways they inhabited a different world than my own (that of a white middle-class male, etc.). Someone in my position had the option of simply noting the display in passing or dismissing it as one more instance episode of urban pathology. For one reason or another, things didn’t break that way, and seeing the memorial time and again worked on until the words of the first line, “A teddy bear, an R.I.P.  came to mind.
            Long dog walks gave me time to realize that those words and others that subsequently came to mind were falling into the meter of the ballad stanza. This didn’t seem like a coincidence, since murder is arguably the ballad’s oldest and most common subject.  My emphasis on aftermath and speculation strayed at most slightly from the murder ballad tradition.
            All this empathizing and incipient versifying, though, ran up against a pessimism born of the overcast and short days of mid-winter.  Though I hadn’t gone out of my way to avoid my near neighbors, I didn’t know their lives. How could I as an outsider be of any help without coming off as naïve and condescending, adding insult to injury? Moreover, how would I answer those who, like the “Stop Snitchin’” crowd, conflate pathology with identity? The poem thus ends as it began, repeating the first stanza and offering no particular solution.  The latter would run the risk of turning the poem into what I’ve come to think of as “agitslop,” a facile and self-satisfied declaration of good intentions, with line breaks.
If the poem is uncomfortable to read, as it definitely was to write, I hope it can help to inform real conversation rather than the exchange of talking points that all too often passes for discussion of political and social issues.



J.D. Smith’s third poetry collection, Labor Day at Venice Beach, was published in August 2012; information and sample poems are available at His first humor collection, Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth, will be published in March as part of the first list of start-up Cassowary Press. Awarded a Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007, he is currently circulating a collection of poems in formal verse. Another perspective on his walks can be found on Orion Magazine Online at

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