Three Poems ~ Jesse Lee Kercheval


I was in the chair at the dentist
when the news came on the radio—
the president was dead.
The technician screamed, pulled
the dental pick up through my gum.
My father came running
then fainted when he saw the blood.

Driving home in the car, he kept
the window down, gulping in cold air.
Already there were soldiers stationed
at the intersections. I asked him
to drive faster, wanting to be there
when my sister got home from school,
wanting to be the one to tell her:
Our president is dead.

My sister who, spurning Nixon,
had a color photograph of JFK
above her bed. But she already knew.
The principal had announced it over
the school intercom, then sent
everybody home. I was disappointed.
That’s what I remember—
that I’d wanted to the one
who broke my sister’s heart.


February 19, 1965 at 3:30 pm. Malcolm X was pronounced dead at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

The feet of morning the feet of noon
walk ceaselessly toward the moment
that has been coming for days, months, decades
down the streets of Omaha, Milwaukee, Lansing
stalking first his father then coming after him
through foster homes and prison and to all the cities
of America to Mecca and on to Africa. And he knew it.
He posed at the window with a M1 carbine in his hand
so Ebony could put that image out in the world.

He dressed and then undressed
dressed, then got undressed and still
a mouth opened within another mouth
and within this mouth another mouth
and so on seemingly without end

until the feet that had been walking, walking, walking
suddenly arrived. And there was a gun—and at least three men.
And no one knows what the truth is or was
except ten buckshot wounds
from a shotgun
21 gunshot wounds
to the chest
left shoulder
arms and legs.

I don’t remember hearing a word about it.
My teachers didn’t cry. Or my parents.
Or any of my friends. He was not
a dead president. Not our history—
heads or tails
but their heads, their tails
and the tongue
sits silent in a chair.


You hear it on the radio
and in the morning think you dreamt it.
Someone shot Bobby Kennedy.
Everything’s going to be OK.
Bobby told them. Then, Don’t lift me.
the last words he’d ever say.