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The White Shirt

ISSUE:  Summer 2022


Sometimes, a teacher proposes
we write about something
insignificant, or a friend requests

that poems and posts not get so
political. Imagine something ordinary,
something simple

and free: a white shirt
clipped on a clothesline and
fluttering in the breeze. But I can’t

slip it on with ease
as some might,
though I might long, at times,

for a respite. I try to imagine
how quiet it must be, caught
in a cloth so white

it seems to possess
no color at all, only the pure
bright essence of light

and reality. And unlike snakes
why would we molt
from a skin we can’t perceive?

                            In the ordinary
moments of my day,
I try not to see

in the length of ironed linen
a turban torn from a grandfather’s head
moments before he’s thrown down

on a suburban street, palm trees
waving quietly. Or a burka ripped
from a woman’s head

as she’s shoved like a pinball
from fist to fist on a crowded train
among men who want to rise and reclaim.

Or a towel that wraps a baby
born at the border, who is greeted
by barbed wire and searchlights

probing shadows like a white knife.
As much as I try, I cannot write
of white shirts

without likening them first
to the hood of a Klansman
afire in a darkening wood.

I can’t think of it (cloth starched,
pressed cleanly into folds,
steam rising from hemmed edges)

without envisioning heat
vanishing from beneath a shroud
on cement, from the dark skin of a boy

allowed to be dead for hours
on a public street, his soul restless
and lingering above him,

his shirt a beacon of light
I cannot turn from, so
searing its clarity.

From the shirt, a white shirt,
I can’t unlink the chain of police
who stood shoulder to shoulder

holding sheets to block the view
as though not even the sun
could judge who or what

had seemed to keep their peace
while the boy’s life unspooled
a ribbon of red

downhill. I try to grasp
that in some cultures, white
is a symbol of purity; in others,

an expression of grief.



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