Don Colburn

Onlookers at 38th & Chicago

Before George Floyd, I always found a way
with someone on the news about to die
to close my eyes or turn and look away.


But I have watched that video richochet
and cannot turn my head hard as I try
each time before George Floyd passes away.


He doesn’t pass away. They kill him splayed
face down beside the right rear tire, his eyes
ablaze with terror, calling Mama, airway


choked off, cop kneeling on his neck, no way
to turn his head. Three men in blue stand by.
Before George Floyd they always found some way


to say the dead man was a threat to put away
for good. Can’t breathe . . . — his hoarse whisper a cry

to officers who look, and look away.


Onlookers all, we can’t unhear his Why?
Bystanders? No excuse for standing by.
George Floyd, dying, showed us another way.

He could not close his eyes or look away.


Keats and I Describe Waterfalls

Dark water from somewhere above
spills over granite ledges, down
to where it runs out of rock

and plunges silverly into the lake—
silverly a word I wouldn’t think of
if John Keats hadn’t first

in a letter to his younger brother, Tom.
All in slow motion, even the lake,
greenish with rock flour, wind-roughed

and drifting toward a logjam.
Summer of 1818, Keats walked north
across Scotland and saw waterfalls

for the first time. His fervent fancy
held still, no match for the real.
The sight of so much falling water

astonished him, he told Tom,
its tone and color or if I may so say,
the intellect. It would not stop.

Back home in Hampstead, Tom was dying
of consumption and Keats apologized
for describing what he’d seen.

Descriptions are bad, he wrote,
then vowed: I shall learn poetry here.
Which made no sense until I sat on a log

by a crook in the Nooksack’s north fork
to watch a never-ending cataract
of greenish whitewater spill silverly

over boulders in a riverbed
and fancied something restless,
beyond description, out of sight.

Don Colburn came to poetry late, in the midst of a newspaper career. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post and The Oregonian, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. He has published five poetry collections, including four chapbooks. His latest, Mortality, With Pronoun Shifts, won the Cathy Smith Bowers chapbook award. Other writing honors include the Discovery/The Nation Award, Finishing Line Press Poetry Prize, Cider Press Review Book Award and residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo. He plans a “symmetry move” this year from Portland (OR) to Portland (ME).

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