There Are No Perfect Synonyms for Brother

We have never seen each other’s blood. They found opiates in his, antibodies in mine. We break against the past in different ways. I locked myself in someone’s college and drank. I invited myself to dorm rooms. The boys came. He broke into a house to smoke. He’s looking for a cheap gun with our mother’s phone. I calculate the number of lies it would take to puncture the state line, bring him here. I map the highway arteries strung between us. Clots of red clay and Mississippi pine. Squadrons full of wide-jawed men in Money. My brother’s premature heart, a few beats slower per minute than everyone else’s. His chest a rusted cotton gin, churning withdrawal. When I say: I have lived in his father’s house, I mean every rest stop; every dead boy’s memorial plaque riddled with holes; every drunken man stumbling toward my mother’s back as she sits alone on the bed’s trembling lip, hands tied in matrimony; every danger that darkens the threshold of my faith, finds me on my knees and shoves illnesses down my throat like my own genitals. There are too many ways to be invincible. Between my brother and me, my sister misunderstands. She tugs at her stethoscope. We can’t attach a number to this pain, though the tens look like men fallen to the ground, collarbones separating from noosed heads. Necks swollen shut. When the cops came, my mother tried to punch through the cruiser’s window—not to save her son, but to strike him. I tell her: I don’t know what else to say. When we succumb to the lymphocytic current, wrapped in the tarp of ordinary bodies and brine, no one cares who first lifted a thigh to the needle’s singular gaze, or who was thrown screamless into the purling water. Our fathers’ hands are gone. My mother’s hands are shaking. It’s not her fault she can’t unopen the vein.


This poem references the violent death of Emmett Till (1941–1955), who was killed by half-brothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam after allegedly flirting with Bryant’s wife. Till’s body was wrapped in tarp and weighted with a cotton gin’s fan before being thrown into the Tallahatchie River. The lines “every memorial plaque/ riddled with holes” refers to the historical sign marking the site of Till’s death. Since its installment along with other Civil Rights­­–related memorials in 2008, the sign has suffered repeated acts of vandalism, and, at the time of this poem’s composition, was defaced with bullet holes (Jerry Mitchell, “Emmett Till Marker in Mississippi Riddled With Bullets,” USA Today, October 24th, 2016).

Destiny O. Birdsong is the author of the poetry collection, Negotiations (Tin House Books, 2020), which was longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award, and the triptych novel Nobody’s Magic (Grand Central, 2022), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. She was the Hurston-Wright Foundation’s inaugural Writer-in-Residence at Rutgers University-Newark and now serves as a 2022–23 Artist-in-Residence at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.