personal essays: the first wound, a found essay in verse

The following was taken directly from the documents pertaining to the grand jury investigation of Michael Brown’s shooting. Omitted words are indicated with a double slash (//). Omissions do not alter the context of the information provided. Read the grand jury documents here.

May everyone involved in this tragedy find healing. May we all find our way out of this, of this and so much more.

The First Wound

The first wound was in the right hand
…………………..and occurred at the patrol car as confirmed
by skin tissue found on the car.
…………………………………..It was the only close wound.

The Body

The body weight is 289 pounds and the body length is 77 inches.
The state of preservation is good in this unembalmed body.
Rigor mortis is well developed.

The body is heavier than ideal weight base upon height //.
Lividity is difficult to access due to natural skin pigmentation.
There is no peripheral edema present.

Personal hygiene is good.

No unusual odor is detected as the body is examined.
There is no abnormal skin pigmentation present.
There is no external lymphadenopathy present //

The pupil of the left eye is round, regular, equal and dilated.
The scleral and conjunctival surfaces of the left eye are unremarkable.
The right eye cannot be accessed due to an acute traumatic injury (gunshot wound).

Gunshot Wounds

There is a gunshot entrance wound of the vertex of the scalp.
There is a gunshot entrance wound of the central forehead.
There is a gunshot exit wound of the right jaw.

There is a gunshot entrance wound of the upper right chest.
There is a gunshot entrance wound of the lateral right chest.
There is a gunshot entrance wound of the upper ventral right arm.

There is a gunshot exit wound of the upper dorsal right arm.

There is a gunshot entrance wound of the dorsal right forearm.
There is a gunshot exit wound of the medial ventral right forearm.
There is a tangential // gunshot wound of the right bicep.

There is a tangential // gunshot wound near the ventral surface of the right thumb.
There is a gunshot related defect present near the right eyebrow //.
There is a gunshot related defect present near the right eyelid //.

The Heart

The surface of the heart is smooth,
………………………….glistening and transparent.

Tissue Fragment

Sections of the tissue fragment from
the “exterior surface of the police officer’s

motor vehicle” are consistent with a fragment
of skin overlying soft // tissue.

There are features of desiccation/drying
artifact present within the soft tissue.

There is a granular layer present
within the upper layer of stratified

squamous epithelium.
Focally, lightly pigmented keratinocytes

are present within the basal layer
of the stratified squamous epithelium.

The Hair

The hair is black.
This represents the apparent natural color.
The hair is worn short to medium length.
There is a goatee present on the face.
The body hair is of normal male distribution.

He Came Around

he came around
…………………..he came around
………………………………………with his arm extended
…………………………..fist made
……..and went like that
………………………….straight at my face with his …
………………………………………….a full swing with his left hand


I know how mace affects me so if I used that
in that close proximity I was gonna be disabled per se.
And I didn’t know if it was even gonna work on him
if I would be able to get a clear shot or anything else.

Um, then like I was thinking like picturing my belt
going around it. I don’t carry a taser so that option
was gone and even if I had one with a cartridge
on there, it probably wouldn’t have hit him anywhere.

He Said

He said, “You’re too much of a fuckin’ pussy
……………………… shoot me” and grabbed my gun.


Then I took my left arm and I pinned it against
my back seat and pushed the gun forward
like this
…………………..took my left hand, placed it against his
and my hand on the side of my firearm
and pushed forward both of my arms.

Somewhat Lined Up

When it got there I saw
that it was somewhat
lined up with his silhouette
and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.
Pulled it again,
nothing happened.

Um I believe his fingers
were over in between from
the hammer and the slide
preventing it from firing.


The first thing I remember seeing is glass flyin’
and blood all over my right hand on the back side
of my hand.

……………..Um, he looked like he was shocked
initially but, and he paused for a second and then
he came back into my vehicle and attempted
to hit me multiple times

………………………….He had, after I had shot
and the glass came up, he took like a half step back
and then realized he was okay still I’m assuming.
He came back towards my vehicle and ducked in
again his whole bod …

………………………….whole top half of his body
came in and tried to hit me again.

……………………………………..Um …


I tried to fire again, just a click.
Nothing happened.

…………………….After the click,
I racked it and as I racked it,
it just came up and shot again.


I was still in this position blocking myself
and just shooting to where he was ’cause
he was still there.

……………………Um, when I turned and looked,
I realized I had missed I saw, a, like dust
in the background and he was running …

A Grunting Noise

When he stopped, he turned, looked at me,
made like a grunting noise and had the most
intense aggressive face I’ve ever seen on a person.

Still Charging

Still charging hands still in his waistband,
…………………..hadn’t slowed down. I fired another set of shots.

…………Same thing, still running at me hadn’t slowed down,
hands still in his waistband.

He Went Down

He went down his hand was still
………………………….under his, his right hand was still
……………under his body looked like it was still
……………………………….in his waistband. I never touched him.


Swabs from Michael Brown’s t-shirt / Swabs from Michael Brown’s shorts / Swabs from the palm of Michael Brown’s left hand / Swabs from the back of Michael Brown’s left hand / Swabs from the palm of Michael Brown’s right hand / Swabs from the back of Michael Brown’s right hand / Swab from the fingernail scrapings/clippings of Michael Brown’s left hand / Swab from the fingernail scrapings/clippings of Michael Brown’s right hand / Piece of apparent tissue or hardened nasal mucus from the driver front exterior door of Ferguson [Police Department] vehicle 108 / Swab from the driver rear passenger exterior door of Ferguson [Police Department] vehicle 108 / Swab from roadway in front of 2943 Canfield / Swab from roadway in front of 2943 Canfield / Swabs from RBS on the upper left thigh of [Police Officer] Wilson’s uniform pants / Swabs from top exterior left front door of Ferguson [Police Department] vehicle 108 / Swabs from exterior left front door mirror of Ferguson [Police Department] vehicle 108 / Swabs from interior left front door handle of Ferguson [Police Department] vehicle 108 / Swabs from [Police Officer] Wilson’s “SIG P229” / Swabs from [Police Officer] Wilson’s uniform shirt—left side and collar / Swabs from [Police Officer] Wilson’s uniform pants—left side / Buccal swab reference sample from [Police Officer] Wilson / Bloodstain card reference sample from Michael Brown

The Deceased Hands

The deceased hands
were bagged with paper bags
to save any trace evidence

personal essays: giving thanks

I am thankful that my entry and exit wounds are only emotional, not physical. I am thankful that I have no gunshot-related defects. I am thankful that I am not lying dead on an examination table while someone makes note of my BMI, my skin pigmentation, the color of my hair, the scleral and conjunctival surfaces of my left eye which—at the time of examination—is my only eye.

I am thankful that my flip flops were not found lying west of me in the roadway.

I am thankful that the examiner cannot open me up and look at my glistening, transparent heart. Thankful that I have not left tissue fragments on the exterior surface of a police officer’s motor vehicle, that there is no dessication or drying present within my soft tissue. Thankful that I have not been described as grunting, as aggressive, as having the most aggressive face ever seen on a person. That I have not been described as crazy. Just crazy.

I am thankful that the only weapon I am perceived to have is my voice. Thankful that my hands were not bagged to save any trace of evidence, that I did not lie in the road dead for more than four hours. That I have not been reduced to the swabs taken from my shirt, from my shorts, from my palms, from the backs of my hands, from my fingernails, from the roadway, from the thigh of the police officer’s pants, from the left side of his pants, from his collar, from the tissue I left on the police officer’s front door, from his back door, from his door mirror, and from the inside of his door handle.

I am thankful that I did not lose consciousness immediately from the head wound to my face, that I was not unprotected when I collapsed, that the boney prominences on the right side of my forehead and cheek were not abraded as the road stopped my fall. I am thankful that my flip flops were not found lying west of me in the roadway and that my red baseball cap was not found near the police officer’s vehicle.

I give thanks on this day. Thank you. Thank you. Amen.

the voices in my head: notes on craft from charles wright’s halflife

Well, I don’t want to tell a story. That’s why I quote the Chinese student who told Pound years ago that poetry is made up of gists and piths—from one meaningful thing to the next, from one strong image to the next, from one musical moment to the next. That’s how I like to put poems together, rather than an overall narrative story.

If, as Keats has it, Melancholy has her shrine in the temple of Delight, then Experimentation has hers in the temple of Form.

When I write to myself, I’m writing to the landscape, and the landscape is a personification of the people on the other side. That would be my ideal audience.

I think [Cezanne’s paintings] are even more personally engaged because he is the landscape. And that’s what I would like to become. I would like to become the mental landscape that I write about.

Such a line as has “pippiroo, pippera, pippirum” in it, the evasion of emotion. This is very shaky ground for me.

I’m a primitive poet, I think. I trust my ear, I trust my instincts because I’m not particularly well-read or learned.

Unless you love the music of words, you are merely a pamphleteer.

All the well-made, passionless, wooden little poems one sees everywhere nowadays, panting like tongues in the books and magazines. But poetry is not a tongue. Poetry is the dark beast with its mouth open, and you’ve got to walk down that tongue and into the windy mouth. And you’ve got to sing while you walk.

The correct image is always a seed—it contains its own explanation, and defines itself.

The Jazz Age is over, the mid-century posturing and frenetics and self-important divisions seem to have passed, or at least settled, and the long, high-energy, self-contained imagistic line’s time has come.

All of which is to say, I write poems, I don’t write sermons.

[Emily Dickinson] wrote about What Mattered, landscape and eternity, the here and the there, the now and then.

If you end [the poem] on a statement, you’d better have one that looks as though it were squeezed out of the poem, and not just tacked on at the end.

The secret of the universe is Form, even if poems are not the secret of the universe. They’re only clues to the secret of the universe.

When the finger of God appears, it’s usually the wrong finger.

american life in poetry: prayer for joy

by Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2004–2006

Stuart Kestenbaum is a Maine poet with a new book, Only Now, from Deerbrook Editions. In it are a number of thoughtful poems posed as prayers, and here’s an example.

Prayer for Joy

What was it we wanted
to say anyhow, like today
when there were all the letters
in my alphabet soup and suddenly
the ‘j’ rises to the surface.
The ‘j,’ a letter that might be
great for Scrabble, but not really
used for much else, unless
we need to jump for joy,
and then all of a sudden
it’s there and ready to
help us soar and to open up
our hearts at the same time,
this simple line with a curved bottom,
an upside down cane that helps
us walk in a new way into this
forest of language, where all the letters
are beginning to speak,
finding each other in just
the right combination
to be understood.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2014 by Stuart Kestenbaum, “Prayer for Joy” from Only Now, (Deerbrook Editions, 2014). Poem reprinted by permission of Stuart Kestenbaum and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2014 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004–2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

the writing life: the stages of grief (letting go of the failed poem)

Denial and Isolation
The first reaction to realizing the poem has failed is to deny the reality of the situation. It is normal to rationalize overwhelming emotions. This defense mechanism buffers the immediate shock. We block out the words and hide from the line breaks. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.

As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear off, the painful reality emerges. We are not ready to lose the poem. Our intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed as anger. This anger may be aimed at pens and paper, literary journals, MFA programs, fiction writers, or slam poets. Anger may also be directed at the failing poem. Rationally, we know the poem is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the poem for causing us to suffer. We feel guilty for being angry; this in turn makes us angrier.

The editor who recognized the poem’s failures and was unable to correct them might become a convenient target. Editors deal with failed poems every day. That does not make them immune to the suffering of the poems themselves or to that of the poets who write failed poems. Do not hesitate to ask your editor to explain the details of your poem’s failings. Insist on clear answers to your questions regarding why and how your poem has failed. Ask the editor to enumerate the disposal options available to you. Should the failed poem be recycled, thrown in the trash, used to line a bird’s cage, folded into an origami animal, or used to swat flies?

The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is a need to regain control. If only we had sought editorial intervention sooner. If only we had gotten a second opinion from another editor. If only we had tried to be a better poet in the first place. Secretly, we may make a deal with Apollo or Calliope in an attempt to postpone the inevitable loss of the failed poem. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality of the poem’s eminent demise.

Two types of depression are associated with mourning the failed poem. The first is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss. Sadness and regret predominate this type of depression. We worry about where and how to dispose of the failed poem. We worry that, in our grief, we have spent less time with other poems that depend on us. The second is subtler and more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate from the failed poem and to bid it a final farewell.

Reaching this stage of mourning is not a gift afforded to every poet. The demise of the failed poem may be sudden and unexpected, or we may never see beyond our anger or denial. It is not necessarily a mark of bravery to resist the inevitable and to deny ourselves the opportunity to make our peace with the failed poem.

A Final Note
Poems that are failing appear to go through a final period of self-erasure. This is by no means a suggestion that they are aware they are failing, only that their decline may be sufficient to produce such a response. Their behavior implies that it is natural to reach a stage at which their ability to communicate is limited. The dignity and grace shown by our failing poems may well be their last gift to us.


Adapted from “The Five Stages of Loss and Grief,” by Julie Axelrod