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Ligatures for Black Bodies

By Denise Miller

Denise Miller’s stunning artwork is featured on the home page of Praxis Center’s website. Here, she shares three poems from her forthcoming book, Ligatures for Black Bodies, with Rattle Press in November. For Denise, poetry tells the stories of individuals in order to give the entire society its full voice. In Audre Lorde’s words: “our labor has become more important than our silence.”

a sketch of the left portion of an african american males face
Artwork by Denise Miller

Click-Click, An Officer’s Confession
-for Victor Steen

(… had seen him at a construction site and thought he may have stolen something. or He didn’t have a light on his bike — only two reflectors.)

Something shapes him
into that smoke-slippery shadow I just saw
shift from construction site to concrete.
Not my fault he won’t stop, I try
to bull-horn him to his feet—

Not sure if it is all my steel and four
wheels barreling after his two
that make his black body all limbed
motion— but I know it’s the click-click split
from this hand through that Florida night—

sound all snake’s rattle—
shock that follows bite—
that’ll hurtle him from spin to flight—
to motionless

—A chassied tree branch.
A tangle of dogwood or willow—

He lies. I slide under, lie—
next to him. Look the length
of axle to oil pan, then glide

my hand into his pocket—
gift him steel and lead.

Difference is—

I lie for a reason.


We Are Taught, Another Officer’s Confession
– for Tamir Rice

(a Black Male, camouflage hat, grey jacket, and black sleeves at or near the swing set waving a gun and pointing at people)

tamir rice illustration
Artwork by Denise Miller

See, we were trained to keep eyes
on hands—
we were trained
that hands may kill— we
were trained to tap-tap

a hole as round as an open mouth—
trained to watch as nickel-tipped teeth
tear through a torso of grown flesh
to leave an openness all clean-edged

—and gaping

but we were not taught to decipher
a black boy’s body from the bulk
of a black man. Were taught to fix
on the hands without reading for

wrinkle or smooth. We were taught
to look at the elbow, wait for when
it begins to pendulum toward our
ticking hearts. We were taught to shoot

and move. We were taught
that the car is a coffin.
We put his sister
there to wait.


13 Seconds on Pulaski, Another Officer’s Confession
– for Laquan McDonald

(He punctured the tires of a car with his knife)

And shit yeah, I’m scared
of any black boy’s moving— his
marking a deliberate line through my world—

so I set that body spinning

—a black top through thinning air—

13 seconds
from start to
motionless. He’s holed and I’m—
the empty chamber— wholly intent on reloading.

Denise Miller was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, and raised in Cadiz, Ohio, is a Kalamazoo Valley Community College instructor, artist, poet, and community activist. She received a BFA from Bowling Green State University in Creative Writing in 1992 and an MA from Central Michigan University in 1995. Her work has also been funded by an Emerging Artists Grant from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and the Gilmore Foundation. Miller is co-founder of Fire—an arts and culture non-profit in Kalamazoo that has as its mission to encourage and respond to people’s desire for authentic expression. Fire reflects Miller’s belief that social and cultural awareness generate and sustain social justice.

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