for Helen Hill, filmmaker, activist, wife, mother, friend
murdered in her New Orleans home January 4, 2007
A bullet’s callous fury found my friend
and I admit my shame: I love this city,
murder capital of the United States,
as Helen did. She and I shared a dream:
to unravel New Orleans; to find our home
behind lace doors, beneath moss-bearded oaks,
between cracked bricks on trash-strewn sidewalks;
to raise our children here; to create our art;
to imagine this city needed us as much
as we loved it. I wanted to die here,
my bones entombed in sun-bleached alabaster—
but not like that, shot in the neck, pleading,
Please don’t hurt my baby, helpless, bleeding.
Her death shocked us awake, we dreamers dreaming
that blood would stay behind levees of privilege,
so far from crack, gangs, poverty. We marched
and marched, in anger and in love, a sea
of blood-spattered survivors wailing our loss,
our screams absorbed by sultry morning air.
Does it thirst or does it weep, this New Orleans,
when gunshots and screams blur our city’s voice,
when newspapers fill with the names of the dead,
when funeral marches clog streets with mourners
until we’re forced to stand together, weeping,
trapped by our grief, unable to move forward?
A bullet found my friend; my hands drip red
with false immunity. What have I done
to stem the tide?
I raise my voice to cry
for her, for all of us whose blood still flows
through street cracks down to thirsty earth, to the river
that carries this country’s silt and sludge away.
River, hear me, above the languid drone
of apathy, and cleanse our wretched city
of zombie-eyed children who take the lives of mothers,
fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and strangers,
lives razed like so many blades of grass. River,
cleanse us of despair-corrupted souls
and thirst no more for our innocent blood.
Be sated, vampire city, and weep with us.
Helen, your voice still haunts my dreams, begs please
don’t hurt my baby; my throat fills with your words
as I gaze at my own son. He’s two, same as yours
the day you died. How do we keep them safe
when random bits of lead can cleave a morning
into before and after?
Paul and Francis
moved far away, far from New Orleans’ ghosts,
but we’re still here, my family and me.
We watch the films you made, Helen, on tape,
and listen to your songs. Your hopeful voice
fills rooms, chasing away our fear, here, where
your gentle, quirky heart blossomed into art;
here, where a random bullet claimed your life;
here, where the children watch your films again
and revel in your dreams dancing across the screen.
The movie ends; my son says, “More,” and yes,
Helen, we wanted more from you; these films
keep ending. So we rewind to hear you sing
here, where we live, in New Orleans, our home.
originally published in the journal Oxford American
used with permission of the poet