“Arrest This Poem” by Richard Prins

Richard Prins


A real poem will arrest its reader.
But it should also achieve things
its writer could get arrested for.
Personally, I have been arrested
for obstructing government authority,
criminal trespass, disorderly conduct,
and resisting arrest. I also want my poems
to resist, obstruct, trespass, and always
act disorderly (but most of the time
they just achieve public urination,
which won’t get you locked up in New York).

The first time I saw Prince
I was seven years old and afraid
of how much I loved him.
I mocked his falsetto
and asked my mother
if he was a boy or a girl
(the same question
posed to me by a child today
who broke from the sprinklers
to ogle my lime green toenails).

I was sitting beside the sprinklers
because my two-year-old loves water
ever since I brought a kiddie pool to Zambia,
and she splashed and drank so much of it
she wound up vomiting in the hospital
(I forgot the garden hose wasn’t potable).

If the word “Zambia” caught you off guard,
please remember that Zambia is a country,
and sixteen million people do live there
like my daughter did, happily, until
a week before Trump’s inauguration.
That’s when she moved to Brooklyn
because we didn’t think customs officers
would let her in the day they woke up
and realized they worked for a bigot.

When she was a baby, I flew often to Zambia.
Once my white seatmate asked if I was going
on safari. No; I was going to see my daughter.
“Oh,” her lips curled. “So she’s a volunteer?”
I was 28 years old then, hardly old enough
to have spawned a voluntourist. But truth
is just a maze I built myself to dwell in
with hedges trimmed short so strangers
can peer in, or leap out if they don’t like it.

Questions are less threatening
when they come from children.
Grown-ass Brooklynites
see my daughter’s skin
and ask if she’s adopted,
see her mother’s skin
and ask if she’s the nanny.
They rarely see us together
because we are not together,
so our little girl
shuttles between worlds,
her existence interrogated
by the curious, idle people
who never run out of ways
to let you know you don’t belong.

My last name is Prins, so I used to joke
I would name my first-born “The Artist
Formerly Known As” (tAFKa for short;
who wouldn’t want to rhyme with Kafka?).
I used to hold her in my arms and sing
medleys of Prince to lull her asleep
underneath a lemon tree in Lusaka.
I just can’t believe / all the things people say
Am I black or white / am I straight or gay?
Prince expanded my narrow sense
of life’s possibilities, and I hope
that same resplendent groove
will burst all the boxes and binaries
the universe may thrust on my daughter.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe
144,000 folks are anointed
to rule beside Christ in the afterworld;
Prince earns my vote to join that little flock
(though I’m sure he’ll get disgruntled
by celestial hierarchies and scrawl
the word “sheep” across his cheek).

Tonight, a Prince-themed roller disco
takes place beside the sprinklers,
where the undrained water lurks,
lashed by purple strobing lights.
I’m sipping a flask outside the rink
in my purplest dashiki, afraid to go in
because I came swaddled in self-pity
and the kind of unsexy lonesomeness
Prince tried to expunge from the earth.
I can’t summon the courage
to join the free beautiful people
and rent a damn pair of skates
even though I thought nothing
of obliging three police officers
to drag me out of Trump Tower
with plastic handcuffs pinning
wrists behind my back, a grin
spreading mirth across my face.
When they placed me under arrest,
I didn’t wish to walk beside them,
so I decided to channel my daughter:
if it’s time to leave the sprinklers,
she’ll stage a sit-in, limp as a fish.
Shoulders vanish inside her blades,
forcing me to lift and carry her away
just like the cops carried me away.
I have committed more poetry
putting my body on the line
than regurgitating my mind.

After Charlottesville, I took my toddler
to march against our Nazi-Coddler-
in-Chief. A puppet wore a Trump mask
and wielded a goofy, bloodstained axe.
The mingling protesters adored
my baby, who snuck up and roared
at Trump while we booed and hissed.
The puppet blew us a smarmy kiss.
But soon concern was sprawling
across the face of my daughter,
who will race to pat the shoulder
of any playmate she sees bawling.
Now she wished to console
this papier-mâché ghoul
getting bullied by Rise & Resist
and our rowdy troupe of activists.

“Daddy, I wanna hug the puppet!”
But that wouldn’t be good optics
with all the cameras flashing
and the world around us crashing
thanks to Trump’s unslakable thirst
for blood, attention, whichever comes first.
Maybe he needed more hugs as a youth,
and my baby unveiled an indelible truth
that good and evil are just binaries,
which need to be deconstructed.
But the world’s on fire, so fuck it—
I’m with the shrieking canaries.
I whisked her away like she was under arrest
even though pride inflated my chest
for my empathic little girl
growing up in a nasty world
that has already displaced her
and will continue to mistake her
for something simple, and slight.
May she teach me how to fight.

from Rattle #67, Spring 2020


Richard Prins: “In January 2017, two events radically changed my life: my daughter arrived in New York, and Donald Trump arrived in the White House. The spare time that I had previously devoted to poetry was now spent at playgrounds and protests. My solution was writing this poem about taking my baby to a protest. I considered it a remarkable feat of multitasking. I’ve been arrested several times since then at other Trump properties and the United States Senate. Civil disobedience is a bold, reckless, floppy, disruptive dance. Ideally, it’s also backed up by meticulous planning, theory, conviction, and community support. In other words, just about everything I could ask for in a poem.” (web)

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