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Pushcart Nominee, “what matters if not breath” by Drea Brown

The following poem by Drea Brown has been nominated by About Place Journal for the 2020 Pushcart Prize.


at times it seems black life matters in death, and we die hard. this ain’t no lie.

sometimes we see it coming, sometimes we go to sleep and never wake.

then someone makes t-shirts, offers flowers, a mural a song, candles

someone says this matters, and the one before and the ones before, remember

them too. some of us cannot forget, and live mourning what we fear the body

will become. a chant or march, a verdict of hope/lessness, a spectacle on repeat.


such a familiar pattern, tears and teargas, pushback, solemn apologies on repeat.

all around are effigies of ghosts. memorials and mamas who can’t take another lie

so, they plant gardens where blood softens the earth, open caskets so the body

is a testament of love and grievance. and everyone is invited to the wake

of the neighbors’ child. rest in power sister, brother, cousin in loving memory

of a dear father auntie uncle gone too soon, hashtags and hymns, candles


lit at vigils, bonfires in our chests. for every life snuffed out light another candle

the flames become constellations, there are too many stars to count and repeat.

and all this, all this matters. all this loss. all this black. this hurt, these memories

knot in the neck, make the spirit sore, leave an arid mouth, tongue too bitter to lie.

so, you pray the night grows calm, that tomorrow is not too hot, that no one wakes

to mistake minding your business for insolence. and you wake, knowing your body


a marvel, a totem of resilience and ancestors’ sacrifice. you believe the body

deserves every breath, and this is right. such a prayer is possible. light a candle

because this all matters. all this life. all this black. all this glory. and you wake

rock, hum and breathe then repeat, rock and hum and breathe then repeat.

and it is fire. it is water. earth and wind, black and everywhere, in everything, no lie.

and this soothes. so, you remember


we survive because we refuse to forget. we die because we refuse. these memories

of paradox and persistence, of breath snatched and pressed beneath a knee. bodies

overboard and underground, thrown into the street, marching down the street, lying

in the street for hours and hours. we remember because it is our right. light a candle

for everything lost and found in the dark, then rock and hum and breathe and repeat.

someone says black joy matters, so we dare ourselves to dream ourselves and wake


up laughing, in love with the fullness of us. i have always wanted to wake

up laughing and unafraid of the nightmare of these days. perhaps to remember

is to imagine how we survive regardless of history’s cruel shuffle and repeat.

someone says freedom is not fiction. i believe this. someone says our bodies

are sacred and i want to be alive and irreducible. each morning i light a candle

for right now, for unfettered futures. a candle for the dead and restless to lie


still, for spirts that guide, for the waking to be easy. a candle to honor our bodies’

flight and fight, every name, before and after today. light a candle, to remember

we are not the horror on repeat. all this black. all that matters is our breath. no lie.