Bullet Points by Jericho Brown explores hate crimes in America, particularly looking at those of the police against Black Americans. The poet testifies how he will never kill himself in police custody. Instead, he suggests that if his body is found near the police, it will be their doing. The robbing of life from a community hits home with the current Black Lives Matter movement across the world. Brown articulates one of the many problems with American society.
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The poet suggests that he would rather rot away on the floor of his house, being eaten by ‘maggots’ rather than dying in police custody. Brown invokes the grotesque to further emphasize the awful treatment of Black communities. The final image, a city paying off a grieving mother, is a harrowing depiction of our modern age. Brown argues that money will never bring back those who are dead, life cannot simply be paid off.
You can read the full poem here.
Form and Structure
Jericho Brown writes Bullet Points in free verse. The poem measures 33 lines, with no rhyme scheme present. Brown decides on this poetic structure to emphasize the stream of thought he telling. This is something that impacts Brown to his core, the writer having a visceral response. By writing this poem in free verse, Brown allows his thoughts to flow freely on the page. This also leads to fantastic moments of enjambement which are sharply cut off by caesura. This stunted rhythm and fractured meter could be reflecting the lives lost at the hands of the police force in America. One only has to look at the police response to the BLM movement in 2020 to see the horrors of the American police force. Brown uses structure to emphasize his arguments, the free verse portraying his racing thoughts.
The central theme discussed within Bullet Points is race. Brown examines how Black communities are treated by the police of America, this poem becoming his response. Race and racism are, therefore, at the heart of this poem.
Another theme that Brown explores in the poem is violence. Even in the phrase to name the event, police brutality, there is a note of violence. Brown explores the different forms of violence enacted by the police. Spanning from ‘shoot’, ‘hang’ and ‘kill’, Brown employs images to violence to display the current events in America.
One technique that Brown employs in writing Bullet Points is enjambment. In using enjambment, the meter of the poem begins to increase. As each line flows quickly into the next, the intensity of the poem builds. Brown is creating a hostile and bleak environment, reflected through the unsettlingly quick pace. Amongst these moments of speed are intersecting caesuras, fracturing the meter. These caesuras cause a momentary pause in the poem, perhaps reflecting moments in which lives are lost. The sudden break in meter being emblematic of the sudden loss of life.
Another technique that Brown employs in his poem is harsh plosives. Especially in lines also emphasized by caesura, Brown uses many plosive sounds. For example, ‘that cop killed’, the plosive /t/, /c/, /k/ all combine to create a horrific sound. The brutality of this moment is engendered through this harsh sound, the cutting language reflecting the awful killings.
Bullet Points Analysis
I will not shoot myself
To get home. Yes, I may be at risk,
The poem begins by employing the first-person pronoun, ‘I’. Beginning in this way, Brown instantly insinuates that this poem will be discussing the personal experience. As a Black man in America, this topic is something that Brown experiences first hand. He clarifies, through the triple repetition of ‘will not’, things he will never do. He rallies that he will never ‘shoot myself’ or ‘hand myself’, suggesting that deaths in police custody of this method would be murder, not suicide. Especially in ‘shoot myself/In the back’, Brown is referencing the media stories in which someone supposedly shoots themselves from behind. This is of course a cover-up for negligence and murder, yet it is seen now and again from American media coverage. The use of the future tense, ‘Will’, is firm and certain – Brown will not change his opinion on this.
The use of caesura following ‘I promise you,’ creates a moment of pause. This moment intensifies the connection between ‘I’ (Brown) and ‘you’ (reader). Brown uses his poem to speak directly to the reader, making sure they know that he would never commit suicide in police custody. He is warning the world, preemptively discussing the occasions in which this very thing ‘happens’.
Caesura is used again, ‘home. Yes, I’, the meter becoming incredibly fractured after a series of enjambed lines. It seems that Brown is almost struggling to get his words out, frustration at the unequal treatment clouding his poem.
But I promise you, I trust the maggots
To tuck me in. When I kill me, I will
Brown employs the grotesque, suggesting that he would rather be consumed by ‘maggots’ at home. He never wants to be taken into police custody because he does not trust them, he ‘trusts the maggots’ more. The lack of specificity within ‘An officer of the law of the land’ generalizes all American police to a singular vision. The rife police corruption appearing across all 50 states attests to this fact, there are major flaws in the police system.
Brown does not even believe that if he were to die in police custody, they would ‘shut my eyes’. They wouldn’t even cover him, ‘tuck in’. The soft semantic and reference to ‘mother’ is odd here, boldly contrasting the harsh brutality of the police force.
Do it the same way most Americans do
Fished from the folds of my brains.
Instead of suicide in police custody, Brown vows to ‘kill me’ the same way ‘most Americans do’. He references casual deaths, ‘cigarette smoke’, ‘I choke’, ‘I freeze’ all relating to common deaths in the united states. The ‘winters we keep/Calling the worst’ directly references climate change. The dramatic difference in weather patterns has to lead to the ‘worst’ winter in living memory seemingly happening every year. Brown points to another flaw in American society, the policymakers favoring fossil fuels instead of driving for a greener future. Brown’s frustration is palpable, there are seemingly so many things about America that are unjust.
Brown argues that if he is found ‘dead anywhere near/A cop’, then he was killed by the police. The poet makes his point evidently clear, ‘that cop killed me’, pointing to police brutality. Brown then closes the poem by focusing on the impact a police killing can have on the community. The communal ‘us’ binds together the readers of the poem, ‘my body’ being separated.
Nothing can give back a life. Brown points to the ‘settlement’ a city pays ‘a mother to stop crying’. The poet argues that there will never be an amount that is equal to human life. The closing image, a ‘bullet’ contained in the ‘folds of my brain’ shows Brown’s vision of him being shot to death. The murder, boldly denounced as something he ‘will not shoot’ comes true. Brown, against everything he said, is murdered by bullets. This final moment illustrates Brown’s murder, another life lost to the hands of the police.
One of the most famous poems in history, Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird, also explores race in America. Angelou writes about the difference in the treatment of white and black citizens. Although she uses a metaphor of birds, the tone and sentiment are much the same as Bullet Points.
Another poem that discusses America is America by Claude Mckay. While Mckay does reference some positive aspects of America, both have a similar stance on the corruption the country has.