621: The Wrong Question More Than Once

621: The Wrong Question More Than Once

621: The Wrong Question More Than Once


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

Just recently a Missouri School Board voted to ban Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye and a Tennessee school board banned Maus–the graphic memoir of Art Spiegelman about his own family’s experience in the Holocaust. Book banning infuriates me. We are banning books to keep our children safe, but we can’t pass gun laws to protect our children from school shootings?

In today’s urgent poem, we see the speaker wonder what it might take to value the safety of all children. Let me tell you, it’s not banning books.

The Wrong Question More Than Once
by Matt Donovan

For most of the shift, it was more about not looking
bored or wanting to seem invisible behind the ER desk
while nothing much happened at all. A Cubs banner
twitched in the air vent. A nurse wearing a “Welcome
to the Madhouse” T-shirt described a stick-figure meme.
Someone wanted to know why a drunken John Doe
had pissed in the supply closet & a man half–hidden
behind a triage curtain never stopped staring me down.
Off-rhythm pings from somewhere chased a pulsing
beep that made it seem as if something had gone wrong.
I asked & then later asked again: nothing was ever wrong.
And because the shift would be ending soon, I asked
the question I was there to ask after reading about
a surgeon who’d claimed our gun problems could be 
solved if only we’d release the autopsy photos
from Sandy Hook. That’s the only hope, she insisted,
for this to be reversed. No doubt even if I’d found
a better shape to my words, the doctor chaperoning
my visit would have given me the same look that said
as an act of mercy to everyone within earshot, please
shut the fuck up. The idea seemed stolen from
Scared Straight, he said, the 1970s documentary in which
prison lifers rage at juvenile delinquents as a means
of mending lives. Shoes squeaked. Phones rang.
More off-rhythm pings. Besides, why would seeing
bodies with gunshot trauma make any difference
to Second Amendment fans? They’d say “Yeah,
that’s what guns do.”

		            The next day in the basement
of Saint Sabina church, talking to the woman
from Purpose Over Pain, what easier way to proclaim
what little I knew than to ask the same question
even after she told me—calmly, quietly—how her son
was shot unloading a drum kit outside a church?
We have mass shootings all the time in Chicago
& they do nothing. It’s a problem when it’s white lives.
When a six-year-old gets shot on the South Side,
it’s just crime as usual. And after she walked me
upstairs through the pews, past the sculpture 
of an ash–gray figure gripping a pistol with one hand
while piercing the chest of a young girl with another,
leading me through the locked front doors & out
to the display case lining the sidewalk—was I thinking
even then about how photos of the dead might
enact change? This is our memorial wall, she told me,
matter of fact. I knew everyone here. She watched me
for a moment scanning the faces stapled in place—
school photos, caps & gowns, plenty of thumbs-ups
& basketballs, children a few months old—before 
pointing at a teenager grinning in a white tuxedo
in front of a drawing of a skyline & fountain.
There’s my Terrell right there.

"The Wrong Question More Than Once" by Matt Donovan, from THE DUG-UP GUN MUSEUM, forthcoming from BOA Editions in November 2022. Used by permission of the poet.