|The poet Antonkolsky|
Part 1: Not days, not years, but centuries
The Russian Pavel Antonkolsky wrote the long poem "Son" after the June 1942 death of his 18-year-old son, Vladimir, in World War II. Reading it for the first time this quiet gray morning in Oakland, I couldn't avoid being reminded of the plight of every parent here who loses a son to the gun. So many of the killed are 18, or just a few years on either side of 18. The majority of our victims are between the ages of 18 and 34. The vast majority are men and boys. The point here is that in just about every case I've encountered, at least one of the parents of the victim is alive to suffer. This is what they suffer. And this is how long their suffering lasts, whether their son was what people call "a good kid gainfully employed," or what they call "troubled."
You must dig in black ashes a long time.- from "Son"
Not days, not years, but centuries,
Until your dry eyes finally grow blind,
Until the stiffening hand ceases
At the end of its final line. Look now
At the features that you loved.
He's not your successor; you're -- his.
You've changed places, he and you.
Part 2: So much hard frost
Antonkolsky described in verse his grief over the death in action of his young son in June of 1942. In his long poem, "Son," he seemed to capture, with haunting precision, the suffering of today's parents who lose a son to violence.
In the poem, Antonkolsky goes on to say, "You share your mourning with all Moscow," as surely the parents of the killed in Oakland seek to share their mourning with our city.
Antonkolsy then seems to describe the ambivalence of Moscow, which in 1942 was of course suffering the abject horror of war. Here he again captures something of the modern-day ambivalence of Oakland toward the survivors of homicide victims. Oakland can be a warm and happy place, tolerant and open. I love it here. (See: A Unified Theory of a Tough Town.)
|Akim & Ultra Humphries lost their son, Darnell Byrd, in 2013|
It's the warm and happy Oakland that tends to brush most killings aside. Hey, you've gotta live your life. And if you stopped too long to ponder every death here -- after this weekend's triple homicide, there have been 31 already in less than 6 months of 2015 -- you'd have little time left for your own problems. I continue to think that if we did stop to ponder the suffering that comes in the wake of each killing, no matter the circumstances, we would have less and less to ponder.
Here is how Antonkolsky saw his city, the Russian capital, after the death of his son:
You share your mourning with all Moscow. There- from "Son"
Are no lamps or candles in windows,
Only haze, chilled with all the tears
And so much hard frost. It helps
With its attention. What memories? Rails,
Rails, rails, Poles, flying by, poles.
Those burned-out people, shivering in the wind,
The whine of shrapnel. The metal howl
"You've changed places, he and you" - Part 1