In times of grief, we often turn to poets to describe the indescribable.
Last Wednesday, writer John Keene put on a tuxedo and won a National Book Award for a new poetry collection that includes his poem “Pulse,” a tribute to the people killed and wounded in 2016 at the Pulse nightclub, a LGBTQ haven in Orlando.
In his acceptance speech in New York he urged the audience to “support the people fighting for a … less brutal, less violent, less cruel country.”
Three days later, a gunman walked into an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs and began spraying bullets.
And Keene’s poignant poem has taken on a horrible new resonance.
Keene wrote it in 2021, five years after the massacre in Orlando.
“I initially tried to write a poetic memorial to the victims lost and injured at Pulse, but I could not find the right words. My emotion (my sadness, horror, etc.) keep exceeding my language,” he told CNN.
Eventually, he said, “I found another way to commemorate those lost, to not speak for them but with them, not in their absence but in their presence, I hope, in solidarity and love.”
Keene, who said he is “heartbroken” by the Club Q attack, describes “Pulse” as “a poem of remembrance … of making present those lost, through the little, often overlooked details and particularities of our lives.”
The poem appears in Keene’s “Punks: New & Selected Poems.” With permission from Keene, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark, and his publisher, The Song Cave, it’s republished here.
for the 49 murdered and 53 wounded at the Pulse nightclub,
Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016
We are the quiet street hours before doors open.
We are the first words, and the parting ones.
We are the cologne and perfume selected for tonight alone.
We are the fragrance of soap, Vaseline, shea butter.
We are the pressed polo shirts and tees, the freshly laced kicks.
We are the pants just out of the dryer, the sweater that fits.
We are the glances, the stars, the winks.
We are the close cut, the caesar and tight fade.
We are the the crucifix, beads and cowrie shells.
We are the knockoff watch and the 14-carat chain.
We are the cordon and the gathering line.
We are the sashay and the strut and the swagger.
We are the foundation, mascara and blush.
We are the eyeblink, the heartbeat, the hush.
We are the oil glistening in locs, ponytails and fros.
We are the piercings, from eyebrows to tongues to noses.
We are the mouthspray, the breathmints, the gum.
We are the bustier, the suspenders, the garters.
We are the shades that never come off.
We are the pocket scrap or the rolling paper packet.
We are the Ex, the weed, the snowy trail.
We are the bitter beer, fizzy soda and sweet cocktail.
We are the chairs rearranged to open the floor.
We are the sweaty brows, the half-hidden tears.
We are the gleam of smartphone screens.
We are the little talk, the banter, the laughter.
We are the claps and the clap backs.
We are the wigs on too tight, or just right.
We are the improvised steps, the smoothest moves.
We are the dances that precede the groove.
We are the cruise, stare and icy glare.
We are the kikis and airkisses and shade.
We are the gossip that cannot wait to be told.
We are the static, base and reverb.
We are the heat rising off bodies near, touching.
We are the beat that slides beneath the beat.
We are the fallen lash, the broken heal, the belt cinched tight.
We are the proposal, for a lifetime, a few minutes or the night.
We are the breath held till the evening’s climax.
We are the closing doors, the bolted locks.
We are the silence that always remembers.
We are the song that never ends.