By James W Barnes
“Jimmy.” I stirred so she knew I was awake.
“Last night…A man shot Bobby Kennedy.”
“Did he…is he dead?”…”Yes. He’s dead, honey.”
My mother’s hushed words, 7:30 in the morning,
June 7, 1968. I lay frozen by her greeting
as she quietly left my room to let me cry.
The news reached into my gut and lodged
there with an acrid ache I had never known.
I’d lived to see his brother’s murder, King’s
abrupt silencing by gunfire, and now Bobby’s—
the candidate my friends and I campaigned for,
the man who was fresh air in the bedlam bog
of racial segregation, gun violence and wars.
Though we were only 17 years old, Bobby was
our hope to rise from the hell of self-destruction
and to fashion a future without war,
without racism, intolerance and fear.
We didn’t know then what I know now—
the war was with our own humanity.
The war was waged against the earth.
We stood with adolescent nerve for peace,
refuting society’s gilded promises while in hidden
bunkers built of ideology, men constructed
their weapons of biological warfare against which
we had no defence and no hope of success.
And now Bobby was dead, and so died our hope.
Two years later, as I graduated from high school,
I determined to conscientiously object
should my number be drawn at art school,
while across the country campuses had become
battlefields of protest—the young refused to comply:
“Hell no, we won’t go” rose from countless commons,
but the bunkered men had a different slogan
and sent in troops to enforce its fearful rhythm.
Four unarmed students lay dead at Kent State,
killed by national guardsmen, their protectors,
killed by the machine: the students’ rage.
What was the use now? Viet Nam ended
with Nixon’s victory. Peace was a political game.
Where now, our rainbow; where now, the flowers?
Where was the free love, the daring risk of youth?
It seems the good die young…as we did.
We stepped into an America without heart,
carving our lives like ruts in a clay road.
Universities, careers, news of new wars,
nuclear races and ecosystem destruction.
We fought still with verbal protest,
wrote impotent letters as age tempered our
verve and life became the norm of compliance.
Bobby was dead, and Martin and John,
and those Kent State students, and our
drafted friends left silenced in the Killing Fields.
We turned around and they were gone.
The wake behind us knew our despondency;
we became the radical generation who’d lost,
baby boomers bound to bow and conform.
Yet the millennium turned as does the tide.
A new day, a new dawn rose as my poet’s dance
chronicled my personal history of disconnection.
And as myth and legend would have it,
one simple and droning day at my teacher’s desk,
my seasoned sonnet met Youth’s brisk ballad.
We met as the sun was setting on my teaching life,
and rising on my poet’s path, warming metaphors.
Your searching eyes met mine from an ancient time,
Your multifaceted mirror reflected my forgotten courage.
We were not strangers, we were a bridge from
my tired optimism to your certain conviction,
my cynical acceptance to your revolution of love.
That was the moment. We were one—youth and age,
60s and 21st century becoming the new story
whose plot had been lost in the maze of deception.
I woke this moment with a new conviction—
Bobby was alive, and Martin’s dream revived:
the songs broke free and retrieved the story—
the same words I sang at 16 and 17 I sang again:
The times they are a-changin’, the bunkered
men’s order was rapidly fadin’; now
I was the father lending the hand to a revolution
centered from the inside and changing the world.
When we shared breath, metaphor and meaning
when you swam into your pain and rose restored,
the bridge was completed and a new way found—
cross generational rap, the Earth’s new sound
echoing from the mountains, hallowing the ground.