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Los Angeles Poets for Justice: Book Review

by Kelsey Bryan-Zwik

Justice, and Why We Want It

Flip through, Los Angeles Poets for Justice: A Document for the People, and you will find wisdom on any page and a clear need for change. That is a testament to the thoughtfully curated voices and artists drawn together here by editors, Jessica M. Wilson and Karo Ska—visions that are humbling and haunting, that echo words from the dead.

These brave creators remind us of the everyday terror we can be all too used to, the force of racism, which so viciously targets some bodies with its ugly opinions and violence, while leaving others seemingly unscathed. I say seemingly because it is clear from these poems and beautifully rendered works of art in full color, that with racism we all lose the beauty of our neighborhoods, the friends from our childhoods, and the family that isn’t protected by the powers that be. That state sponsored policies are stealing futures from our brethren, their very lives, and in so doing: destroying our communal future.

These voices, these visionaries, that have been too often trampled by our own tax dollars, in this anthology cry out for a better future, cry out for a reckoning of our past and present. They ask us to listen. The first section of this book, Righteousness; Standing Up for Black and Brown, opens with an essay by Amari Lani which ends with the kind words and wish, “I want all my beautiful Black girls to know, I’m rooting for you, Sis. You are a Queen.” Words that sit opposite of a powerful portrait dedicated to, “Black queer/trans folx proud to be their true selves,” by Sueitko Zamorano-Chaves. These two pieces reflect beautifully on one another and fully affirm Black beauty and worth.

In this chapter there is also blank space dedicated to some of those we have lost to police violence in recent years. This space evokes the spirit of these missing voices, the hollow left in the wake of such loss. This is space for the souls of Dijon Kizzee, Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, to rest in power. A space for us to contemplate what justice means for them and us as a people.

The second section of the book, Turning Point: Standing Together in CommUNITY, starts with a quote by Zora Neale Hurston, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” irksome and uncanny words that too perfectly describe the situation we are in. Noreen Petrichor’s poem, “The Ballad of George Floyd,” echoes Zora’s words, “They asked us/ brazen-faced/ if we would be tamed/ we answered with/ hauling their streets upside down/ and tearing the sky from the/ horizon.” And despite the tragedy of having to repeat this acknowledgement, what I find, and what this collection affirms, is that speech is power, is action, is a history of our own telling, and that what we are fighting is an insipid silence. As Noreen’s poem continues, “Pleas that ran up a pinched/ windpipe and fell forlorn/ crashing off a blue knee,” reminding us we must take every chance to speak our truth.

This section also contains gorgeous artwork including a series by Edwin Vasquez, who says, “My art is a protest to the way the government is abusing its power and lying about the pandemic.” Edwin’s piece “Even the Animals go WTF. Please Vote,” brought forward the absurd reality that what is going on has no logic and is really offensive and harmful to most beings on this planet. The piece that follows also gets at the importance of words and how we use them, and is simply titled, “Lies.” There is also artwork by Tommy Vinh Bui, one of which is titled, “Rubber Baleens.” and depicts a militaristic figure trying to fire a grey whale like a gun. And powerful black and white portraits by Sophie Len that depict the visceral nature of protests and the importance of handmade signs.

The third segment, Courage & Resilience: Looking Forward to Shaping the Path, opens with a quote by the phenomenal Maya Angelou, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. Please remember that your difficulties do not define you. They simply strengthen your ability to overcome.” sage advice as we try to establish a world that respects marginalized bodies. With acknowledgment of this inherited struggle, Rosalilia Mendoza states in her poem, “I Hope We Remember our Fire,” “Like our ancestor’s blazes/ Who fought for the sacred/ integrity / of humxn kind.” Throughout, A Document for the People, page after pages asks us to speak up for each other, to respect each other’s experience as a result of bigoted society, to find kinder terms for one another, to accept new chosen names and genders, and through this we begin to understand our layered reality and how to weave together a hard-won justice.

The final chapter, Empathy: Social Justice for SHE, is a manifestation of words to action. This is an extension of the vulnerability networks communities are learning to create in order to address long standing discriminations. In particular this text along with the #SHEDOES movement, will be used as actionable testimony to urge the city in “Prompting rapid sheltering of unsheltered & unprotected women.” And with the heartbreak exposed in these closing poems I can only agree and cheer on this chorus of honesties. As Linda Singer’s poem states, “Curled in corners/ like human litter,/ they sleep concrete cold/ dread-filled dreams,/ pain-authors calling poetry/ onto the streets.”

This book shows us each poem is a protest sing, each voice a riot, each paintbrush-in-action, all the proof we need. To grieve for those we’ve lost, we say Black Lives Matter. To folx treated to daily racisms we say we hear you. To trans folx struggling to survive we say your bodies and your lives are beautiful. To unprotected women, we say we believe you.

Say the words with me.

Queer love.

Two spirited.

Black, Brown, Lives.


Say, “I want to know your story.”

Now let’s draw that world we’d love to live in.

For now, let’s call this place justice.

To support this project, you can order your copy of, Los Angeles Poets for Justice: A Document for the People, Here.

Peace, Love, Unity, Respect,

Kelsey Bryan-Zwick, Author of the forthcoming, Here Go the Knives, from Moon Tide Press in January 2022.


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