A Web-Exclusive Poem from Cameron Barnett’s New Collection | The Sun Magazine
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A Web-Exclusive Poem from Cameron Barnett’s New Collection

Murmur: “Grandpa’s Gavel”

By Cameron Barnett • February 27, 2024

Book cover for Murmur by Cameron Barnett.

We are celebrating the release of Cameron Barnett’s second book of poetry, Murmur, out today from Autumn House Press, with an exclusive online publication of “Grandpa’s Gavel.” Cameron’s new poetry collection considers the question of how we become who we are.

Click the play button below the title to listen to a recording of the poem by Cameron Barnett.

Grandpa’s Gavel

I am mad at the red shelf for how tenderly it holds
the finished wood of my grandpa’s gavel because,
really, I am ashamed to hold it, afraid my hands don’t
carry tenderness quite the same, so when I do gather
the sense to stand and face it, my palm unfurled

over the handle like a rain cloud, it’s not lost on me
how I darken its sheen. I take it into my hand, and
it’s now 1959 and I’m in the room: NAACP gathered,
Grandpa pounding the sounding block to call
order—here, big decisions get made; here, activism

happens, ingrained into mallet and memory, and I am
mad again, this time at how little I can see from my clouding
of the room. Getting in my own way is my best trick;
getting in Grandpa’s way is a new trick I try
when I pry the gavel from him, and now it’s 1975

and I’m in his church watching righteousness rain down
from his every word, so I bow low in the back pew and pray
to be less shadow here and more snow—yes, pray that I may
accumulate, not obfuscate; yes, I pray his prayers don’t find me
here, unable to face him, his beautiful words, his heart so set

on justice. So I pick up his gavel once more, and now
we are caught in a SoCal sunset, and time has wrinkled him,
and time has also brought me to be, and this time he doesn’t
lift a gavel, but a grandson, his second one. Does he second-
guess his life’s work, entrusted to this careful boy? Does he notice

the clouds gathering where the sun makes its exit? Do I notice,
as my hand moves for the gavel again, how tenderly he held me,
as if this were inheritance, as if something in me spoke
carefully of a place to rest his soul? Is this why I can’t lift it,
even now, even then? Is this why the curl of my hand around

the stained maple reminds me of a fist, and recoil rips
through my veins? Pop, I want to be brave like you, but
even a taillight can kill these days; these days, the bullets
and bombs you dodged in church have followed us
to schools and streets and theaters and stores and squares,

and it’s like a cloud hangs over the world all the time,
and I am just scared of holding this weight. The world eats me
alive and never knows it. Could I ever have an ounce
of your courage? Could I face myself and all
the prayers you placed in me, raining over

a world awash in chaos? I take this gavel,
and all I am is right here. I’m brave enough
to do that. I’m brave enough to be, for you,
a bridge, perhaps. You were called to be strong
so that I might be your tenderness, but

is this enough? Is this enough? A question I weigh
each time I grasp this gavel, each time I place it back
on the red shelf, each time I pass by with a clouded
heart hoping for release, hoping to get a grip, hoping
to lift you up one day just the way you deserve.

“Grandpa’s Gavel” is from Murmur. Reprinted by permission of Autumn House Press. Copyright © 2024 by Cameron Barnett.

Photograph of Cameron Barnett seated at a desk.

© Joshua Franzos

Cameron Barnett is a poet and teacher from Pittsburgh. He is the author of Murmur and The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water, the winner of the Autumn House Press Rising Writer Prize and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He is a graduate of Duquesne University and earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh. Other honors include a 2019 Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Award for Emerging Artist and serving as the ’22-’24 Emerging Black Writer in Residence at Chatham University. Cameron teaches at his middle-school alma mater, Falk Laboratory School. His work explores the complexity of race, place, and relationships for Black people in America.

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