Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

staten island, july 17th, 2014


The obsessive return to end words in the sestina form freeze-frames the July day when Eric Garner was choked to death by police for selling “loosies” (or cigarettes out of the pack). While this event has certainly stayed in the popular imagination with the words Garner forced out (“I can’t breathe”) to unhearing, unheeding ears, this poem conjures a witness who smokes, who could easily have bought a loosie from Garner. The witness’s experience of the stifling heat and their own cigarette smoke interplays in unsettling ways with the asphyxiation of a man caught doing something only mildly illegal. It is important, too, that the envoy is set up so that Garner’s haunting plea is the last thing the reader hears. The plea itself has become symbolic of the way it feels to be Black in America, but this poem’s groundedness in the time and place of this specific instance of homicide by law enforcement officers keeps the focus on the act itself, in its heat-dizzy lethal unfolding.

—Ellen McGrath Smith, contest judge


staten island, july 17th, 2014

july in staten island, too hot to breathe
the asphalt simmers, tourist and summer stained
melting my shoes, the filters of my cigarettes
the island slows under the heat, moving molasses
sluggish and sweet—even the ferris wheel creaks
softer, trying to conserve energy, to stay cool

over a choke of heat, i hear someone say stay cool
think of december, when it’s too cold to breathe
and the aches and brakes in me start to creak
take a drag, look over the boardwalk to see boys stained
in blue huddled around a man thick as molasses
squint against humidity, take a drag from my cigarette

recognize the man as the one who never has the cigarettes
i like—not the loosies that always burn easy and cool
or the thin cigars that smell and taste sweet like molasses,
coating my throat and chest until it’s hard to breathe –
all of a sudden the boys swarm, bees on a honey stained
tree—swarm quick enough to make boards creak

so quick—so many so quick the entire boardwalk creaks
boys shout and i can only make out the word cigarettes
i’m trying to see what’s been stolen, whose been hurt or stained
to make our boys swarm so quickly, make ‘em lose their cool
make ‘em shackle arms while he struggles i can’t breathe i can’t breathe
struggling mountainous but slow – like molasses

his great arms butterfly wings tearing under molasses
i see color leave his cheeks hear his bones creak
hear him choke i can’t breathe i can’t breathe i can’t breathe
people are shaking and shouting and packs of cigarettes
are falling from hands that wave stop so fast they cool
the air with collective confusion of and for those boys stained

in the blue they’re squeezing, the blue they’re staining
him with and into while people’s panic burns molasses
slow motion, like whatever’s happening is already on cool
down like it’s already the aftermath of tragedy, creak
crack i can feel his dying taste it like a cigarette
i can’t breathe i can’t breathe i can’t breathe

and sudden as the breaking of men, it all creaks
to a stop and falls ashes of a cigarette
i can’t breathe, i can’t breathe, i can’t breathe


Cassandra Carter is a graduate student at Oklahoma City University's Red Earth MFA. She is a member of the Cherokee Nation living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Her work is forthcoming in The Quotable, Razor Literary Magazine, and Peculiar Mormyrid.