This is poem I wrote when I first heard of Mathew Shepard’s death. Shepard was a college student who was tortured and hung on a fence to die in Wyoming on October 7, 1998. He died a few days later on October 12. This was a hate crime. He was targeted because he was gay.
At the time I was in college in Washington and for some reason this news story moved me deeply. I wrote Scarecrow within a day of hearing this story. Later that year I was honored to be invited to read this poem at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference. I don’t know why I never attempted to get this poem published; it is one of my favorites. I remember thinking at the time that I hope this story doesn’t fade in our collective memory like so many other horrific events we hear about on the evening news. I feared that might be inevitable, but I was wrong. Mathew’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, have worked tirelessly to educate people in order to change the climate of this country away from the hatred that quite literally killed their son. If you wish to learn more about Mathew Shepard, please visit (and donate to) their non-profit organization, the Mathew Shepard Foundation.
It is hard to believe among the pumpkins
waiting for their faces, our knife,
the electric surge rushing, breaking
circuits and veins and bones
that the body hanging with that
fire could still shiver.
We come to this harvest eager to eat
what was sown, what we grew,
our bellies cry,
straw, straw, straw
Notes about Scarecrow
Usually a poet writes and the readers interpret. Please feel free to do that. I know that some of my readers are not very familiar with poetry, so I’m going to explain my thoughts behind writing this piece. Please don’t feel stupid for not getting this. The unique power of poetry is to evoke feelings which are beyond the boundaries of language. All the details and the effort put in by the poet are for that purpose, not so clever people can dissect them like a hidden code to discover meaning. Nevertheless, this is a peek at the work behind this poem:
The title came from the first witness who saw Mathew’s body and at first glance thought it was a scarecrow. It is also a great word to remind us all that we need to be scared of this kind of hate.
It was written in couplets to signify that Mathew died because of the way he loved.
The poem can and should be read to the line breaks and to the end of sentences. It is only two sentences long: one sentence about the crime, another about our collective responsibility. The first sentence is quite long and hard to say on a single breath. That’s to create a sort of non-stop relentlessness echoing the torture and murder. The second sentence is much more calm and measured. It also doesn’t end with a period because I don’t think we are done addressing these issues as a society.
The line breaks show more meaning and also play with language to create striking juxtapositions of images: fire shivering, carving jack-o-lanterns as violence.
The electric surge I was referring to was not literal. It was what I imagine his pain felt like. I was working with sound, repeating a soft “sjz” sound to also reinforce the electricity imagery.
The end of the first sentence brings us back to Mathew’s body and him being cold, alone and afraid. I wanted to remind the reader of the very real human suffering that occurred, not just the brutality of the actual crime.
The second sentence really addresses the main theme of the poem in which I hold our entire society (self included) responsible. The line, what was sown, what we grew would make more sense if it read, what was sown, what was grown. The subject would remain the same and there would be a nice rhyme. I purposefully chose to break the natural pattern in order to draw attention to our collective participation in this bigotry. It is easy to look at crimes like this and feel very shocked and outraged, but also detached and above that level of cruelty. Even if we as individuals didn’t plant the seed of hate, as a country we have grown it. If the people who oppose bigotry opt out of the discussion because they don’t feel responsible, not very many people are left to sit and hammer out a solution.
Fall is harvest time, so we eat what what was planted and tended to fruition. The last line has two meanings. The first is the idea that our harvest is something inedible and non-nutritive, being straw. Straw is something animals eat, but it cannot sustain humans. The second meaning comes from the sound of the word. Straw sounds like caw. This is a Biblical reference to Jesus predicting that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed. Early reports of this crime compared Mathew Shepard’s body to that of Christ being crucified on the cross. That was my reference which also supports the denial of our collective responsibility theme.
I have never explained my own poem in so much detail. I hope that doesn’t ruin it for you. Again, I repeat that I wouldn’t expect anyone to get all that from reading it. Poetry works on more subtle layers of understanding. It’s kind of like wiping the dust off your baseboards; nobody notices them, but they know your house looks clean.
Mathew Shepard lived for five days after he was murdered, but before he died. Please take the next five days to ponder, pray, discuss and resolve to participate in this ongoing struggle of hatred towards gays and lesbians. We must plant better seeds if we ever expect to eat well.