When the World Can’t Save Us

The World That the Shooter Left Us

Poems by Cyrus Cassells

Four Way Books

Release Date: February 15, 2022

103 pages


You know from the book cover and the title of this collection that you’re going to be shattered like the shatter-shaped words in the title which portend violence, disruption, and chaos. Cassels has always gone beyond the personal sphere and is at his best illustrating individuals swept up in history or in defining where private experience and contemporary mayhem intersect. It doesn’t give you much time to breathe and it will need rereading. The brutality and violence is more or less unrelenting, giving new and profound credence to the now cliched theme all literature teachers and students encounter: man’s inhumanity to man.

The book requires a very informed reader, for it is much easier to follow if you have some background knowledge of certain true individuals and events—not knowing many of the tragic real tales of real people recounted in this harrowing collection focusing on politicians and the state of our republic, particularly under Donald Trump; upon gays exploited in many fashions, and mostly the brown, many from Central America, and black persons individually and collectively who suffer and are exploited. Some of the poems are fictional as well.

This is truly “poetry of witness” like the impressive canon of such work by Carolyn Forché which began with her writing about El Salvador in the late 1970s. Her largest contribution to this type of poetry was her groundbreaking Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness in 1993, a book that kept coming to mind reading Cassells’ latest poetry. Forché found the dichotomy between “personal” and “political” too limiting and not able to encompass much of poetry. She came up with the phrase “social, a place of resistance and struggle.”

Early in the first section is a masterful extended metaphor intriguingly titled, “Sin-Eater, Beware.” Cassells mixes the literal and metaphorical “devouring.”


For breakfast: genocide, buffalo hides,

Broadcast feathers & scattered


Wampum beads—

For lunch: bustling cotton gins


An overseer’s rusted iron “bit,”

Egregious auction blocks…


At dinnertime, scarring billyclubs,

Brass-knuckled rent-a-thugs


Of course, it’s clear the sin-eater will not be successful which is brought home with the dire last-line prediction: “When our hate-laden republic implodes…”

The poem “Election” about our country after Trump’s triumph ends with an absolutely chilling image:

Yes, we woke, incredulous,


To dewy-faced fifth graders

Lowering deliberately


In a sun-flecked field

To fashion a human swastika—


The second section’s title poem “Boys Don’t Do That to Other Boys” is a harrowing account of a young man’s rape at the hands of the “Handsome All-Star Athlete & Future Class Valedictorian” who encouraged other men to violate his “boy”, even using a broom handle. When texts between the two are revealed, the town said it was consensual. The stud remarks to his young man: “But you & I know better, don’t we?—”

Like so many before him, the victim can’t get over it:

The whole Gothra vs Godzilla train wreck

& my need to maybe transfer


To a not-so-wigged-out school,

I’m still proud of the moment


When I had the balls to call:

Officer, I’d like to report a rape…


This is one of the most powerful poems of witness in the collection where the full development of the entire scenario is sensitively and wholly explored, implicitly relating the experience of so many young gay men who use phone apps to try “hook-ups” as experimentation. As in so many of these cases, there are those who say the victim deserved it.

The next poem, “Trafficked Angel” is a tale of the exploitation of a young boy, Fernan, that began in a foster home. “I’d been a teenage slave, / A crooning altar boy for sale, / Like a tender nightingale stuffed in a cage—” The older man, Virgilio, or “Jefe” claims to take him under his wings to help him pursue his dream of a singing career.

Then one day he summoned me

An hour before our rehearsal


& suddenly asked to kiss

My sockless & defenseless feet



In no time flat, he groomed me

To service a gallery of older men:


CEOs, priests, celebrities…

Baby, think of it as leche


After four years of trafficking Fernan, Jefe, when charged with rape and human trafficking, claimed the two of them had had a romance. This poem is unusual as it ends on a high note for the victim:

Yes, my invisible wings are intact,

My worshipped angel feet


Are on solid-as-Gibraltar ground

& when I belt out a song nowadays, you hear


The whole truth burning in my voice.


The third section is “Harum Scarum.” One of the earlier poems with the great title, “The Absence of the Witch Does Not Invalidate the Spell,” from an Emily Dickenson poem, is a black magic hex on Trump. It ends,

Un-budging jester on the Hill,

May the emperor-is-naked folderol


The blight of your slipknot reign,

Your slap-shrill tenure,


Shock your tattered soul in full…


“The Only Way to Fight the Plague is Decency” (an American elegy) is a concise history impugning Trump and other politicians, public figures, and heads of bureaucracies who failed to get on top of the “plague.” In a world so weary of pandemic poems, Cassells excels in capturing our current plague. It’s brilliant how he claims winter blooms into a “coffin-heavy April.” Lurking just below the surface is the sense that real leadership could have mitigated the severity of the pandemic.

A winter hustler’s fiat that bloomed,

One titanic, coffin-heavy April,


Into a real-as-your-mama’s-dying-hand

Pandemic: national melee, featuring


Stock-selling senators,

Missing-in-action test kits,


Mask-begging nurses, millionaire high fives

& jerrybuilt morgues…


The ending is also strong in this poem that illuminates Cassells’ mastery:

Where raucous pettiness equaled rollcalling,

Brisk-as-business Death,


Equaled my crushed kingdom

            For a ventilator!


This is a good place to reflect on the type of poetry we’re reading. In Forché’s introduction to Against Forgetting, she paraphrases what Walter Benjamin says about such poetry:

If, as Benjamin indicates, a poem is itself an event, a trauma that changes both a common language and an individual psyche, it is a specific kind of event, a specific kind of trauma…One has to read or listen, one has to be willing to accept the trauma.

She also reminds us about how modern students and teachers of literature have approached the “individual” and the “group.” We all know the type of conflict we are taught: “man versus society.” Why do they have to be in opposition? She has this to say:

Perhaps we can learn from the practice of the poets [of witness] …that these are not oppositions based on mutual exclusion but are rather dialectical complementarities that invoke and pass through each other.

Cassells knows that each of us is also society. This built-in dichotomy is not needed. There has never been a shortage of tyrants and brutal leaders who, along with individuals invested in their own personal gain, work together for the suppression of “undesirable” individuals in their society. Rodney King’s famous quote, “I realize I will always be the poster child for police brutality, but I can try to use that as a positive force for healing and restraint” is an admirable goal indeed. Poets of witness like Cassells take it a step further and give voice to the stories of millions who never came back, or those who no one advocated for, including the media and the poets.


This applies to the final section of The World That the Shooter Left Us: “Tango with a Ghost” which concerns immigrants, mostly based on real individuals and events, at the Southern border, often Central Americans. The main point of Cassells’ poems is to connect us with them, and in many cases for me, research the real people involved in these traumas; in other words, one of his main goals is to illustrate the urgency and frequency of brutality on so many of those who are invisible to most Americans, and to illustrate how immoral it is for us to not know about them. Poetry of witness make them matter through memorializing them like Forches admonition: Against Forgetting

One of the most touching poems in this collection is “Clarinet” which voices the concerns of a mother of one of thousands of the “disappeared” or “the forcibly disappeared,” in Chile—her son Leonel. One can look away only so long. It’s a quieter poem that deftly expresses the emotions of such a mother. Her son was an aspiring musician.

I’ve stitched:

Whoever sees my arpillera,


Help me to pray for my son.

            He was seen leaving rehearsal


At 7 o’clock.

He was seen in detention


At Londres #38.

He was seen; he was seen…


The website Facing Ourselves explains the importance of arpilleras.

The Arpillera Movement originated in 1974 in Chile when…women used scraps of fabric, leather…fibers & hand stitching to create narratives of the poverty, hardship, violence & repression under General Augustus Pinochet’s dictatorship. These arpilleras were secretly distributed abroad & sold to earn money for the women with families whose husbands & children had forcibly disappeared. None of these “desaparecidos” have ever been found.


Whether it’s Guatemala, Chile, or Argentina, it has been the mothers, grandmothers, and other female relatives who have demonstrated for the return of their young men who are probably not coming back considering the horrific acts performed on these disappeared by the authorities, usually the military of a brutal dictator.

In “Clarinet”, the way the mother of Leonel describes who she has become (similar to countless other mothers) is very moving. She no longer describes herself as a docile woman.


I’ve become the weatherworn,

Undocile woman


Manacled to a tyrant’s fence,

A mother dancing the gueca solo


In the monitored plaza…


Your rakish college photo


Pinned to my wind-riffled blouse.


The title poem of this final section, “Tango With a Ghost” deals with the Dirty War of Argentina which was extremely brutal with its teams of Death Squads trying to disappear all dissidents. The third section of the poem describes the atmosphere.

& in ardent Alejandro’s place

Brusque shouts,


A volley of shots, a roaring:

The castaway limbs of shunted,


Blindfolded students,

Stiff as storefront mannequins in the river.


In the second poem in the series “Icebox,” “Those “Return to Senders” Children,” the poet concentrates on the overwhelming number of children who entered at the Southern border without adult escorts. He illustrates their inhumane treatment including being sex trafficked.

The filth-caked children were…sprayed with a winnowing hose at the sacrosanct border slapped seized tear-gassed caged shunted to ex-internment camps holding pens…border police ambitious privateers yes wily traffickers lust-filled clients, maybe over a thousand illegal children—oops!—like so many stamped…dust-strewn packages the careworn postman mislaid… Look, here’s a tasty servant-girl-in-training, a surefire ten! Here’s a little cherub—a pouty, long-lashed boy, perfect for a secret movie…


In the last section of this series, “Icebox,” Cassells, with a dark sense of humor, describes how absurd dealing with the youngest children became.


VI A Toddler’s Day in Court


Key-cold, the deportation hearing starts,

But now, as if in corrosive homage


To Her Kafka himself,

The speechless defendant climbs onto the table—


Silence is the key objective of deliberately disappearing citizens. Though the poems in this collection have strong narrative elements, largely based on real individuals and cases, it is not the narrative elements but the voice of these poems that tell us such occurrences are a “drop in the bucket” of millions whose experiences have not been related. They deserve a voice, even as an anonymous group, living or dead, who should have mattered. We understand that Cassells is acknowledging all of them. The next time someone asks, “Why Poetry?” recommend this book. As inheritors of The World the Shooter Left Us, what can each of us do if we don’t want to forget?




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