Bullets Into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond
to Gun Violence
Edited by Brian Clements,
Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader

Beacon Press, 2017; 180 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty


It took me a long time to read Bullets into Bells. With the shootings in Parkland, Florida, killing 14 students and 3 staff members, and then there were student-led national rallies and student organized walk-outs across the country; then, our President addressed the National Rifle Association convention in Dallas. Two weeks later 10 people were killed and another 10 injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas.

I couldn’t stay with the poems. While reading, my mind veered from particular lines and the argument of experience they advance and quickly engaged the machinery of current social debate. But the anthology encourages such a wider reading.

Each poem is followed by a response. How can a reader remain only in the atmosphere of Juan Filipe Herrera’s “Poem by Poem” which is dedicated to the victims of Dylann Roof’s massacre at Emanuel AME in Charleston, when on the very next page Rev. Sharon Risher, a survivor speaks for herself of the experience? Joel Dias-Porter’s portrayal of going into a school to do a workshop in “Wednesday Poem,” only to discover one of the students had been killed the night before is followed by the reflections of a Columbine High School teacher, who says, “There is no lesson plan / for death and tragedy.” I couldn’t move from one poem to the next to the next without setting the book down, sometimes for days at a time.

Many of the circumstances recounted in the poems cause me to consider gun rights advocates who assert that a “good guy with a gun is the only thing that can stop a bad guy with one.” They might take each home invasion or public mass shooting as evidence of their claim. Fortunately, the commentaries by gun control activists, survivors, law enforcement personnel, or researchers opened up the whole debate. Long before any incident, there are choice points where people can take preventative action. And the book presents many policy options.

Each day, according to the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, more than 30 Americans die each day. This anthology demonstrates many ways to deal with that fact, as it is lived. Individuals can be mourned, as was 9 year old Christine-Taylor Green. Born on 9/11, she was shot dead in Tucson in the same spree that injured Gabby Gifford. Christine-Taylor’s memorial includes a beam from the Twin Towers. Joe Quint, a photographer, has created It Takes Us, a gallery that literally presents the faces of gun violence. Other social efforts to deal with gun violence are also offered. For example, the media can stop giving shooters the publicity they crave, as the No Notoriety campaign advocates after the Aurora theater shooting. Hollywood can examine its glorification of guns and violence in general, as Sharabi Ahmed, a former writer for ABC’s Quantico, asserts. Educational campaigns are mentioned, including ASK Day (June 21st) that encourages parents to ask about guns and gun storage at houses their children visit. And, of course, there are policy campaigns, like laws to trace guns so that when they get into the black market and are used illegally, the chain of possession can be followed. This breadth of alternatives opens the phrase “gun violence” to the many actions it contains, which in turn opens the imagination to the many solutions available to us as a society.

Saturated with grief and anger, the poems themselves deal with the full range of people’s experience with guns. Some demonstrate the ubiquity of our gun culture, like Billy Collins’ “Boy Shooting at a Statue,” in which the child only aims his finger or Nick Flynn’s “My Mother Contemplating Her Gun,” in which the speaker admits that “I bought it / when I didn’t feel safe.” Others recount specific incidents of shots in the streets, loved ones killed or who killed themselves, while others spin out to reflect more widely, like Robert Hass’ “Dancing” which spans a sweeping history. All through the book, in various shades and tones, fear and vulnerability thread through, demonstrating how these are at the heart of our culture.

This anthology is the perfect starting point for readings and discussions throughout the country. Imagine a poetry reading that includes law enforcement officials who explain why the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence supports a number of gun control measures. In addition, the range of styles and voices in this anthology could spark community members could write their own poems; for example, students could express their anxiety concerning school shootings. Events like this would fulfill the hope of this book, which Colum McCann declared in his introduction: “This anthology is not meant to be shelved” but “start talking to one another, not with a legion of sound bites or statistics but with human texture and longing to at least lessen, if not eradicate, the violence that afflicts us” (xx).

Taken all together, Bullets into Bells forcefully argues that things can’t go on like this, and it can help us all deliberate how to change. Colum McCann underscores this, saying that there is a great din of debate but “the common ground on which most proper-thinking people stand” is the feeling that we “abhor violence”(xviii). It’s remarkable when a book of poetry that is so self-contained, fulfilling its own purposes so completely, but it’s a rare event when any book can be this relevant, this useful to our social conversation.