A recent poetryfoundation.org blog post by poet and professor Camille Rankine titled “On My Metatextual Uncertainty” explored the difficulties involved in explaining poetry when curious readers ask what a poem “means” or is “about.” Defining a poem, as anyone who has taught a creative writing or literature class knows, can be exceedingly difficult. The ways in which poetry navigates idea, happening, space, and connotation makes translating the poem’s action into meaning a tall order. Attempting to summarize a poem is often a futile exercise, as one of the beauties of poetry—as both a language and a form—is that its meaning(s) is done a disservice by restatement no matter how closely the determined lepidopterist in us wants to pin that meaning down.
Rankine admits that while she loves reading and writing poetry, “I’m not always eager to analyze something I’d rather just co-exist with.”
I understand Rankine’s position, especially when confronted with a poem like Julien Poirier’s “Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo.” This long poem reconfirms the notion that poetry actively resists being forced into a square hole because often enough the poem is a round peg and a triangular peg and a star-shaped peg at the same time. Sometimes the poem is both the peg and the hole. And sometimes it’s all holes, as is the case here.
Much of the time, the experience of reading a poem is one of those “I guess you had to be there moments,” where any attempt to recreate the movement and the suggestive nature of the work cannot be captured in anything other than the personal act of reading itself. Poetry is phenomenological in this way—it is a language that cannot be expressed in anything other than the direct experience of it.
Surprisingly, for something that operates through the medium of words, words can’t do “Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo” justice. Moderately experimental, “Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo” moves with the shuffling bluster and celebration of sound found in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” only Poirier exercises his clipped poetics with less adherence to structure, form, and grammar. In an identifiably beatnik fashion, Poirier’s poem sonically evocates satirical accusation, political critique, and the profanity of happenstance. The poem is jarring in its intentionally confused juxtapositions, but it remains relatively clear in its intention even when that intention is to resist clarity. As I experienced Poirier’s language, I was reminded of the slippery lyrics of musicians like Beck, and even more so of Stephen Malkmus from the 1990’s slacker rock band Pavement. Pavement’s improvisational licks and pun-fueled double entendres gave the band a certain laissez fare flare that helped merge jazz, spoken word, and poetry with bourgeoning indie rock. Poirier makes similar combinational moves, only without a backing band.
To put the poem in perspective, in 1999 Amadou Diallo became the unarmed victim of an NYPD shooting. Diallo was a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea who was fired upon 41 times when four undercover officers mistook retrieving his wallet from his pocket for the act of pulling a gun. They also mistook Diallo to be a serial rapist who had already been captured. While the offending officers avoided spending any time behind bars, the NYPD retired its Street Crimes Unit in the aftermath of Diallo’s death and paid his family a settlement of $3,000,000.
This poem, which functions more as social commentary than elegy, tribute or homage, originally sold for 25 cents when it was released in 2000. Though out of print, it is available for free through the Ugly Duckling Presse’s digital archives.
The poem is in no way a narrative rehashing of the events surrounding Diallo’s death. Rarely does it directly reference the shooting other than through slant suggestion and innuendo. For those familiar with the tragedy, hidden references can be found jiggered throughout the poem; for those unfamiliar, the poem can often come across as nonsensical, though never purposeless. The opening lines of the poem are tough to grapple with, and even knowledge of Diallo’s fate only makes them slightly easier to decipher:
A tale of herself,
her jet blue bag
My start-up harp
her strut has thrown
–let it goon.
While Poirier experiments with form and syntactic construction, the confusion of being unable to fully decode his symbols and gestures is largely a methodological choice that reflects and emphasizes the nonsensical nature of the shooting itself. Poirier seems to be implying that simply because an event (the shooting of an unarmed immigrant, for example) is phenomenological and able to be witnessed does not dictate that this event can ever be fully understood. An event where there is no sense to be made is still an event, even if it takes place in a building Wisdom and Reason have recently vacated. This seems to be an underlying argument in a poem—sometimes the reservoir of madness has no extractable order—that on the surface cheekily avoids the consistency of concrete meaning while at the same time relying consistently on concrete language. When I read
that skin opposite
I glimpse Poirier allusions to the whiteness of the police officers (in contrast to Diallo’s black skin), an undeniable and unfortunate tradition of racism in American power dynamics, the police officer’s “right” to “guess” that Diallo’s actions represented a threat to their safety, and the insensible violence that resulted from all of these variables being stacked on top of one another.
The mathematics of grammar and meaning in the poem do not add up to reveal clear and profound statements, and neither should they. In a roundabout way, the poem responds to the arithmetic of notions like “serve and protect” and “justice” not adding up perfectly either, as witnessed in Diallo’s death and statistics that show minorities in the United States still being marginalized, criminalized, and penalized to an alarmingly disproportionate degree.
“Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo” cannot avoid serving as a discourse that is critical of race relations and power in the United States; however it does so with such an unexpected turn away from direct address that it never feels didactic or agenda-driven even while remaining controversial. Diallo’s name is mentioned only once, and even then the specific nature of his being brutally gunned down is left off the page. (This may strike some readers as sidestepping a much-needed interrogation of the facts, but Poirier seems more interested in writing a quaking response than an interrogation.)
Of her beaks I coast
in spitters, inter—
Wealth and well-wishing
for Amadou. I counsel
Once disordered, ever known.
Encountering the lines
A game that fans
an accident. 41
In the milk.
I am struck by the suggestion that race-motivated crime is as American, or as traditional, as baseball (“a game”), a sport referenced repeatedly throughout the poem. Mentioning the number of times Diallo was fired upon (he was hit with 19 of the 41 discharged rounds) as “misty whiskers/in the milk” makes me perplexed and uneasy, as it should. There is a coyness in Poirier’s language, and the invocation of milk belies the fact that Diallo’s murder was anything but wholesome. Just as whiskers in the milk are grotesque in an unassuming and unexpected way, so too is the unpunished murder of an innocent man a social grotesquery. However, if it is Poirier’s intention to issue disgust for the police or authority writ large, he hides this fact well, cloaking his radicalism in metaphor. He comes across sounding more like the rapturous madman on the street corner, portending the world’s end in language that conveys its meaning less through sense and logic than emotive energy, than a riot leader.
down, to keep the batters
of winkers guessing. Legal
Strange things happening
Even after reading this poem four or five times (which you can easily do in 30 minutes) you’ll still have lingering doubts as to what’s being said. And that’s ok. The poem, in its steam of conscious style, is intriguing in the way it asks questions without fully revealing what these questions are. It treats the answers to these questions with equal obscurity, both in the asking and the answering. For example, what does the owl flying over the fence actually represent? The departing human spirit? Fleeing wisdom? The cover of night that both caused the officers to mistake Diallo’s actions, and later—in the courtroom—excused those same actions? Perhaps all of the above. Perhaps none.
What’s important to remember is that “Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo” is, like music, an artifact to co-exist with, not to explain into effeteness. To appreciate the poem is to co-exist with the experience of it without expecting to understand its many aspects. Ultimately, this lack of firm ground is similar to the ways in which we’re forced to co-exist with the phenomena of brutality, tragedy, and innocent death even if we’re at a loss to explain why they exist, what they mean, or what we can do about them.
Flying Over the Fence with Amadou Diallo is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse
Eric Howerton writes fiction, cooks mushrooms, gardens, practices screaming, collects masks, plays poker, skis, and does not believe in the ontology of half sandwiches. His writing has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, The Locust, Plaza, theNewerYork, The Legendary, Dying Goose, The Higgs Weldon, Night Train, Grey Sparrow, Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guides, Johnny America, and Haggard and Halloo, as well as several alt-weeklies in Texas and New Mexico. He is a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast Magazine.