My father loved guns. He owned a gun shop, making his living on the promise of killing animals and the potential for killing people. He was a devoted hunter, an amateur gunsmith, and an unreadable encyclopedia of gun-slinging westerns. Even after he stopped paying his life-insurance premiums, he still payed his NRA dues.
I’ve never liked guns. Too heavy and ominous, too full of expectations. And while I understand how happy they made my dad and many others of his context and circumstances, I don’t think guns belong in our lives. There are certainly too many bullets in the world, and too many people dying from them.
I’ve always dreaded becoming a polemicist. Fusing argument and art is difficult, and the results are so often clumsy and inelegant and easy to ignore. So when I write about the issues that matter to me, like gun control, I try to be subtle, but the results tend to be so subtle as to be useless. It’s not that I’m worried about offending anybody; one of the goals of art is to offend without resorting to rudeness. It’s just that poems are discrete, limited objects, and forceful arguments sometimes leave little room for nuance, like the joy that firearms brought my father.
I was reading Lighting the Shadow by Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and I came across this passage from “gun minor, or the inconsolable consolation”:
The bullets in America are not thoughtful. They do not go missing.
They are not tied to chairs. They are not held captive in mobile homes.
They do not announce revolution. They are a riotous amendment.
They are not walking along the bike road, offering their metal eyes
or hungry flesh to strangers. They do not ask for healthy hot lunch or medicine.
They are not being sold behind the school. They are not playing
games they learned from adults. They do not pray to gods or American idols.
We do not drain lakes or books to save them. They do not bear
their captors’ children in basements. They have rights.
It’s not subtle. The argument about social priorities is not new, nor is it really stated in an altogether new way. But it still works. Without overwriting or overburdening the images, the passage ties the debate over gun control to the grim archetypes of disempowered gender, race, and class. It wanders the societal landscape while remaining syntactically rigid, tied to its structure of negations.
I might never learn how to approach my subjects as they deserve, to make a point that might make some difference. I’m glad, though, that other people have figured it out.