Ghazal for Irvo Otieno
For Irvo Otieno who graduated from my high school in
Richmond, Va. Seven sheriff’s deputies and three hospital
workers were charged with second-degree murder in his
death which occurred during intake at a state mental health
facility in March 2023.
You and I walked the same halls of a school
named for Douglas Southall Freeman,
famed editor and Pulitzer winner
who chanted “integration never” as a mantra.
Our mascot back then was the Rebel,
a cartoonish blue & gray Confederate man.
And to this day in social media threads,
his replacement—“Maverick”—is mentioned
with scorn by those who miss rooms
filled with likeminded white men.
You were an honor student, musician,
and varsity football defensive lineman.
But naked, shackled, and cuffed, you were
no match for so many armed men.
A scrum of uniforms tackled you
like a rabid animal, not a man.
Irvo Otieno, Irvo Otieno, Irvo Otieno.
Brother, son, fellow alum, fellow human.
Soon your name, like the others, will grow
dim. Which city, which murdered Black man?
Which one had a bag of candy, a cigarette, a toy
gun in his hand? Which one tried to manifest
a long-gone mother? Which one couldn’t
breathe? Which one was not yet even a man?
In July 1971, Rita Curran, 24, was found strangled in her
apartment in Burlington, Vt. More than fifty years later,
authorities used DNA from a cigarette butt to identify her killer:
her upstairs neighbor.
You were born the same year as my mother
and like my mother became a schoolteacher,
the language from today’s news frozen in the 70s
like you. One of three careers open to girls—
yes, girls—back then: teacher, secretary, nurse.
Or, for the lucky ones, stewardess with its fantasy of soaring
far from the New England factory town where summers
were spent screwing caps onto toothpaste tubes
for a fraction of minimum wage. Your killer
was cooling off after a fight with his wife
and likely took his rage out on you. Maybe your red hair
reminded him of her. Or maybe any woman would do,
any body he could break. And then what, a smoke
in your room before trudging upstairs to crawl
in bed beside his alibi? He died decades ago, taking
these answers to his grave. In the photo, you wear
a black choker. Choker: a necklace or ornamental band
of fabric that fits closely around the neck. Choker:
one who chokes. If you had lived, you’d be retired
like my mother who texts me pictures of hummingbirds
at her feeder. Always the teacher, she explains
that the male’s ruby throat—gorget—is named
for a knight’s breastplate. The pale wings of females
blur against the gray sky as if they’ve been erased.
Author’s Note: In “Ghazal for Irvo Otieno,” I take liberties with the ghazal form; I like the idea of breaking free of the form the way I wish Otieno had been able to break free.
Erin Murphy’s latest book of poems, Human Resources, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Southern Poetry Review, Ecotone, The Georgia Review, Waxwing, Guesthouse, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her awards include The Normal School Poetry Prize, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and a Best of the Net award. She is editor of three anthologies from the University of Nebraska Press and SUNY Press and serves as Poetry Editor of The Summerset Review. She is Professor of English at Penn State Altoona. Website: http://www.erin-murphy.com