“Ode to the Cop Next to the One with the Pepper Spray” by Ryan McCarty

Ryan McCarty


Your cheek turns, Christ-like
from your buddy with the buddha
belly blowing chemicals
on crowds of my students. One falls
facedown while her own mucus
and sweat bottlenecks in the rush
to exit every hole she has. You
might or might not know the blind
terror of drowning, the lung-torn
scream that almost always does
the trick eventually, boosted by the guts
heaving underneath, till air breaks
through. Ten seconds, not like Floyd,
but enough to feel your mother
pounding inside your skull,
calling for you this time, to forget the grass
hasn’t always mixed with gravel
on your knees and palms in a prayer
of almost-dying. Officer, you know
the straight-backed virtue
of duty, eyes cast to the horizon,
white vapors spreading
to the morning. You avoid the sight
of a baseball cap skirting the fog,
kneeling, eyes on your chin, helping
the retching shoulders rise.
I’ll buy you a beer. Let’s rewind
and rewatch on half-speed, wait
for one foot to stir, one hand to drop
the pose. Never. You never break.
While we play you again and again,
you can explain, for all of us
non-heroes, how to hold the line, to pity
the spastic terrified flapping
of robins, escaping their trees in the choke
your boy backhands into the crowd,
how to see the birds disperse
when sense commands, how to look
away from a body and really believe.

from Poets Respond


Ryan McCarty: “I keep rewatching this video of University of Michigan campus police pepper spraying a crowd of my students, colleagues, friends, and community members. Most of my life (but especially the last dozen years or so) have been spent watching the cops who are doing the beating, the spraying, the kneeling, the dragging. But this time I can’t stop looking at one cop near the pepper sprayer. They’re looking upward, toward the east and some trees where I know hundreds of birds nest, and the sun had just risen. Can poetry help us understand that moment? Can anything?” (web)

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