A Poem by Jerome Murphy

by Mark Bibbins, Editor

Code Red

I did not shoot a boy for his flaming red hair.
 Not a witness was there who would tell you I did.

The agitators are ready to amplify everything
 except for the fear I had for my life,

how in one second when his hands
 blurred before me, a bright scarlet sear

leapt from his scalp and nearly caught on my own.
 How in that moment, I was all dry leaf.

How my eye sockets singed when the spark got near.
 I am a man who has always been fair.

This was no little smoldering coal.
 Eighteen is a man. A fully grown man.

We’re talking hazardous heavyweight.
 We’re talking legitimate fear.

Pardon my questioning your credibility here.
 Did you think a sense of dedication meant

I wanted only the badge
 to be left of my body?

He had turned away, yes, to flee
 but you have to stop a fire before it gets too far.

This is not about anyone’s color of hair.
 Others like him will be detained on suspicion

of theft, of affiliation, possession, 
 specifics which are a matter of precinct confidence

and anyway irrelevant to the very good point
 that their behavior is always the same.

Who hasn’t seen them set a city alight.
 You ever seen the wind catch a flicker

and blow it too bright and too far?
 Storefronts blown in, vehicles in shards,

ammunition in the air. Too hard to contain.
 Anyone who’s been in it knows what it’s like,

seen how destructive they are. True, a few will give 
 off some warmth and likely no little amusement,

but face it — you don’t want too many around.
 Theirs is an element to be harnessed for greater

good use, but nothing to play with up close.
 Get more than a few of them dancing together

and things are out of control pretty fast.
 Ever see August blow a blaze across grass?

Face it, the flame by its nature is dangerous.
 Science and society have already made appraisal

of the properties of that particular element.
 I’ll only tell you what you already know.

How everywhere they go they bring their own hell.
 How the scalp has a distinctive and flammable smell.

At this point admit they must want to stand out.
 Is it my concern how they get anywhere?

We’ve given them shot after shot
 after shot. That’s what they get. Shot after —

Stop. Stop trying to make it about what it’s not.
 I hear accusations of excessive force

from heroes not here to watch this town burn, 
 the new conflagration flaring out of control

with a jostling rush of chaotic red,
 hands in the air, breaking the line, spilling

from sidewalks, this loud tide 
 of blood. Now you’ve got fellows

from out of town with their bellows,
 who come here to coax the blaze bigger,

chucking their own kindling
 on the whole fucking thing.

I don’t see color, but I make sure
 they see trigger.

Look out at the destruction, its roar.
 This is not Lady Liberty’s flare.

Chanting about martyrdom 
 and what’s at stake for them,

all their flaming heads together look
 more like a nightmare of lavas below.

The boy — no, man — was a match for our suspect.
 It’s pretty straightforward.

Don’t act like a match
 unless you want to get snuffed.

I would do it to you, do you 
 hear me, I would do it to you.

Boy, we used to douse those flames with hoses,
 the little red roses, the little dead angels.

Any infernos on the guest list tonight?
 Didn’t think so, and have a nice dinner.

This is about proper surveillance,
 this is about maintaining our semblance of order.

This is not about anyone’s color of hair,
 not Lady Liberty’s flare, not about color,

all about culture, and anybody who says 
 otherwise was not there.

You want to believe whatever you hear.
 Everything you’ve been hearing

is of nothing but burning, thus far
 it has all been smoke and unfair

fiction to which you like
 to listen, because who

would kill anyone
 for having red hair.

Jerome Murphy received an MFA from the Creative Writing Program at New York University, where he currently serves as Program Administrator. His critical writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, and Lambda Literary.

You will find more poems here. You may contact the editor at poems@theawl.com.