WE DIDN’T KNOW ANY GANGSTERS by Brian Gilmore: Poems That Look Like Us

Brian Gilmore tells stories in the shapes of poems. He tells these stories so well, in fact, that they retain their narrative powers. He also writes them with such poetic craft, that they emerge as seductive poems. We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters tells the  stories of a man, a family, a city,  a time. While the poems come from Gilmore’s life and memory, they are so well told and formed, they have a universal rhythm. We can all find ourselves in these poems.

I should say here at the outset, that Brian Gilmore, a poet and public interest attorney, is my friend. I should also say that I have done some work for Cherry Castle Publishing, who published this remarkable book, and that Truth Thomas, who directs Cherry Castle,  is also my friend. Having declared all that, I’ll say that this book of poems has become a  friend too. It looks to the past, the present, and the future, in ways that only narrative poetry can.

Gilmore grew up in Washington, D.C. His love for the city is clear in these poems. The city becomes a character in these here, as much as the friends he grew up with, as much as his parents. They all show up in these rich, remarkable poems.

In “a soldier’s story,” he speaks in the voice of his father. It’s a voice of determination, of survival.

i will not die in korea
my children will be born.
thousands of colored
men, like dead ants who
have crawled 
too far for crumbs. 

The poem captures the experience of many of Washington, D.C.’s  African-American families in the 1950s and 60s. U.S. government jobs became the road to a middle class of dignity and security.

i come down to the city of
government, learn to type get
a “good government job” gs-1
or 2. something to talk over
with gin and lime. i meet a graduate
of paul dunbar high. pretty lady
who spins some tales, writes
like the queen, doesn’t fret
about how it be.

In “make it plain” he writes of his mother’s reaction when his father is investigated for being a communist.

w/ folders & documents, they are telling my mother
she married karl marx or engels. this is the source
of her chuckling.

Gilmore continues:

but this is 1955, comrade & 
my father’s whole family is trying
to laugh about it, too.

they are paul robeson, dubois
langston hughes and dashiell hammett
insisting on handcuffs rather than
a microphone.

“is your father karl marx?”
they ask all of them? “how do you
spell ‘proletariat?’ what brand of
cigarettes did lenin smoke?”

At a time when even union activity could mark any employee,  especially a government worker, as “dangerous,” this poem shows resilient laughter as the only sensible response to such accusations. Many faced them though. Some were crushed by them.

Gilmore’s voice works real magic when he describes places and experiences in the city itself. His poem “georgia avenue” chronicles both the confusion and the beauty in the city.

on the back of the bus we smoke pot
drink wine
talk bad about the gov’t.
in the back of the bus we tell
each other that the white man is
the devil.

on the back of the bus, we own the world.
cuss words flow from our mouths like
amens in a church sermon.

on the back of the bus i meet 1 million malcolm xs,
8 million michael jordans, 4 million eddie murphys.
i feel safe. funky funky safe. george clinton funky.

These poems weave the city’s sounds, its characters, and its music into a rich and true picture of life in Washington, D.C. Not the life of politicians, but the life of the city’s longtime residents. It’s a hard life, a funny life, a life that looks at itself but doesn’t take itself too seriously.

There’s a good bit of autobiography in these poems, but not enough to make us feel they don’t belong to us all. In “jaws,” Gilmore tells a personal story but it blooms into a universal story of the minority experience. in particular, the poem tells of his early days at a mostly white college. Anyone who has felt like “the only one” can relate to the fear and relief in this poem.

as we cruise through the campus
there isn’t a black face in sight

i am a slug after a rainstorm
salt has been poured

my father reaches the
administration building
urges me to go pay the bill
so he and my mother 
can go home

it is all so quick

in the building i look up in front of
the payment line
finally see a black

a young girl who looks petrified

we are both on that raggedy boat
with that stupid share hunter
who thinks he knows it 

One of my favorite poems in the collection is “a george holliday rodney king video (director’s cut)” This poem is part list poem, part collage art. Gilmore catalogs, scrambles, then unscrambles his words to create a haunting litany of a poem. Here are the opening lines of this stunning poem:

dred scott.
martin king.
rodney king.
dred king.
martin luther scott.
dred luther rodney.
rodney luther king.
the rev. dr. rodney luther king
was pulled over last night
by the los angeles police
in memphis, tennessee,
and taken to the lorraine motel

Another favorite poem of mine is “mississippi burning.” This poem serves as a kind of collage art including Gilmore’s reflections on law school, civil rights history, and a wide range of injustices. Here is just a part of this beautifully crafted poem:

best of all
was the back row. 

criminal law.

charlie parker
and thelonius monk
are jews.

allen ginsberg and bernard
malamud are black men
who have given up 
malt liquor
to meet marbury and 
huey p. newton liberated
on a technicality for offing
a pig

and how about the rich white
woman who died and left father divine
her entire fortune and gave the judge
a heart attack?

i never raise my hand on the back row.

Another favorite of mine is “law and order #62.” This poem remembers Dennis Brutus, South Africa’s poet and freedom fighter who urged sports boycotts during apartheid.

the handcuffs, dennis brutus
shackles locking his hands to
his waist; if only he were like
sisulu or tambo, shuffling along
on robben; a cause to die for
a reason to hold his
head up high show his
face to the world, some
big game of sport canceled…

Among the more personal poems in this collection is “revolution (for my father.” This poem might have been written by any son who looks back at what he thought was his father’s harshness but sees now his father’s good sense.

my father was a dictator.

in 1968 dad suspended the house 
instituted a state of emergency
suspended any rights television
made us think we had.
he declared tarzan a fake
nat turner important
malcolm x a brother
we must understand. 

This poem goes on to chronicle some of the rebellions Gilmore and his brother launched. He also recalls his father saying:

you will go to school
you will not destroy your life.

He brings the poem full-circle as he admits that 

these presidential duties
are exclusively mine now

The second-to-last poem in the book, “the art of roomier bearden” is among the most tender father/son poems I know.

like romare bearden my
father died alone. this
is how he wanted it to be
i am sure.

the one decision not all of us are able
to make: the time, place and manner of his
departure was his.

These poems tell the story of a man, a city, a time. They are full of laughs and tears. Some make me angry. Others make me want to turn back time. Most make me wish I’d lived some days more deliberately. That wish, that hunger, is just what poems are for.



Published by josephrossnet

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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