A Mathematical Problem I Have Been Unable To Solve

by Kei Miller

In Heroes Park, Jamaica, there is a grave,
and in that grave, there are 26 coffins,
and those 26 coffins share the remains

of 145 women. Let’s go back:
there was a fire – a sudden leap
of orange against the 1 am sky

and then shouts, and then sirens
loud against the warm Kingston night
like the warning of everything

that was to come and that is yet to come.
I was barely two but I remember
my mother crying the next night

over the news report. Let’s go back:
there was a great grumbling
like the sound of flies swarming,

and an election, hovering over
the harsh horizon, lining us up
in the sight of its guns.

Then death began to accumulate
around us in ways we did not know
possible. I was born into this

turfing, this parade of blood, this
extraordinary violence, and this
impossibility to believe in nation

the way my father did.
We were so wary from tending
the dead that the 1am sound of fire

trucks and old women burning
was just the sound of everything
we could no longer bear to hear.

What remains after fire?
What speck of ash is body, and what
board, and what bed, and what bible?

For Agatha Jones, victim #83,
indigent though she was, read
verses each night before sleep –

Agatha – who never acquired
the skill of quiet reading, (too many
noises in her blood), muttered

useless promises to herself
each eventide, “When you pass through
the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not
overwhelm you; when you walk through fire
you shall not be burned.”

Do not say ‘Dental Records’;
what records? Do not say ‘DNA’;
it was 1980 and Jamaica.

No way to distinguish
body from bed, bible from board,
Agatha from Doris from Norma.

All women, all old, all black –
as if they could not be seen except
by fire; as if they could not be heard

except by sirens; as if
they could not be counted,
except by coffins

that did not even equal
the sum of their bodies,
let alone, the sum of their lives.

Poem copyright 2023 by Kei Miller. All rights reserved.

See two more poems from Kei Miller debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: The Dead,”  and  “The Subaltern Dreams of Big.”

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

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