Whoever said death
comes in threes is an optimist.
From “pages one to twelve”
Award-winning author and founder of The Sealey Challenge Nicole Sealey follows up her brilliant debut, Ordinary Beast, with a powerful erasure of the Ferguson Report. Sealey carefully mines the report, put forth by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, highlighting letters and phrases to unpack a narrative beneath the legalese. The collection includes the full text of the report, most of which lingers in pale gray letters stricken by a line running through the heart of each word. What remains are individual letters, syllables, and occasionally whole phrases that pulse against the backdrop of the report and the murder of Michael Brown.
At the back of the book, Sealey explains that she first began her project of erasure to more deeply engage with the report and, by proxy, the long history of state violence predicated on Black bodies. According to her brief note, the process encouraged her to consider an alternative reality “where life might prevail.” This brief statement firmly grounds the collection in a larger movement from poets of color who are redacting public documents intentionally, creating counter-public spaces that reject the dominant narrative and reorient readers to experience life through the lens of historically marginalized groups. Sealey destabilizes the official report on police misconduct in Ferguson, Missouri by foregrounding images and experiences that undermine the highly politicized conversations around police brutality and the murder of Black individuals.
While the official report is more than one hundred pages of highly technical jargon, Sealey excises the vast majority of the text. Her erasures produce just eight poems totalling less than a thousand words. Readers can find a cohesive version of each poem following the report, but the impact of reading the lines in context adds an essential layer to the reading experience. What amounts to a few lines, for example, might span three or four pages in the erasure, creating a sharp staccato of language that mirrors ragged breath or a heart struggling to find its rhythm. This effectively and hauntingly animates a report that is, in its original form, despairingly devoid of life.
The first poem begins with “Horses, hundreds, neighing—/part reflex, part reason,/part particular urge.” This image simultaneously evokes the violent history of westward expansion in the United States and the unbridled freedom of horses in the wild. Against this image, the speaker warns the reader, “At gunpoint, among them,/you are. Less likely to live.” The final lines of the poem are a thunderous allusion to the frequency of murder at the hands of police, rebuking those who say “death/comes in threes” as we are forced to consider perpetual news cycles filled with Black and Brown bodies brutalized by police officers across the nation.
Sealey is exceptional in her ability to create images that are at once innocent and fraught with violence:
Stop! Hands Where I can see!
a boy pretends to prey. His mark
makes of her hands a bird
and flies away. Stop, or I’ll
shoot! he kids. Then makes
of his hands a gun. Fires away.
These images are rooted into the innocent play of a boy and girl, yet Sealey highlights the potential violence beneath the interaction with deft efficiency. The girl, in raising her hands and taking flight, mirrors the final moments of Michael Brown’s life. Her hands offer not a threat but an ethereal return to nature, one similar to the horses of the preceding poem, and still she cannot escape the seemingly inevitable violence that halts her escape. The same fate lingers in subsequent poems, with Sealey alluding to the long history of violence imbued in the word “sundown” as she describes how the day, and a life, extinguish. Even the sunset is dubbed the “casket’s crown.”
The Ferguson Report: An Erasure is one of the most powerful uses of the form, taking its rightful place alongside Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Mai Der Vang’s Yellow Rain as a prime example of how poets can, and are, redacting public documents in an effort to take ownership of their respective histories. This is a book that belongs in every library, and in every classroom.