Unfinished Letters to Officer [Insert Name] by Tara Ballard

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


I.

May you read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
May you fear yourself young, and black, and there.
May your stomach churn.
May you reside in a neighborhood with fifty-percent unemployment for your skin.
May you question location, direction, and life.
May you see yourself Lady Macbeth. Out, out, damned spot!
(You will have to scrub harder.)
May you witness the beauty of a village in northern Ethiopia.
May you find time to view Al Jazeera’s “Fault Lines.”
(There are a few episodes you might find interesting.)
May you lie down on a city street to feel the press of gravel into your chest and cheek.
May you take a break from reading comics.
May your lover avert her eyes.
May you experience hospitality in Ghana.
May you wake at midnight and tremble.
May you memorize Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
May you dream oak trees.

II.

My husband is African American.

He is from St. Louis.
He is educated, reads Wordsworth and Yeats,
studies Biblical history.

His brother is a police man.

If you saw my husband
walking toward you today,
would you cross the street?

III.

Say your name aloud. The world knows it.

A merchant selling cork outside
the city of Lisbon knows it.

A grandfather sipping mint tea
in Gaza knows it.

A college student protesting
in India knows it.

IV.

What are your thoughts on education?
Did you ever imagine yourself famous?
How do you feel about Edward Snowden?
Have you studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?
Are you comfortable?

What are you thinking right now?
Have you read Othello or The Invisible Man?
Where do you see yourself in ten years? Twenty?
Who is your brother, Officer?

What brings you fear?

V.

[Insert Name],
remember those adolescent years.

May I call you
[Insert Name]?

VI.

Yes—I have smoked weed, rolled blunts.
I have listened to rap music, watched
Belly and Boyz n the Hood.

I have said bad words and taken photos
with my middle finger to the sky.

When I was fourteen,
I braided my hair, Officer.

How many times
would you fire that gun at me?

VII.

Forgive me for I have sinned.
My hands are lifted.

VIII.

Officer [Insert Name],
what is your crime?

Author photo of Tara Ballard

Author photo of Tara Ballard

Tara Ballard was born and raised in Alaska. For six years now, she and her husband have been living in the Middle East and West Africa, teaching English in local area schools. She holds an MFA from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and her poems have been published in or recently accepted by The Southampton Review, Salamander, Chiron Review, War, Literature and the Arts, Wasafiri and other literary magazines.