by Phillip B. Williams

According to America’s Most Wanted, “Around 3:00
a.m. on February 17, 2005, New York City transit
workers found two suspicious bags alongside the track at
the Nostrand Avenue station in Brooklyn.”

When Rashawn Brazell went missing,
the first trash bag of his body parts
hadn’t seen his head, didn’t know where
it could be. The subway tracks spat
no sparks for him; the stairway light
to the train flickered no S.O.S.;
the recycling plant uncoiled
no ribbon of six-pack plastic to offer
evidence, condolence. Workers
at the recycling plant found a morbid gift,
limbs bagged up like trash. No head
to say a name or claim his body scattered
like false clues across Brooklyn. A shovel
holds memory better than any mourner,
rain carrying the sweet sting of pine
in its translucent purse, bird shit
from a nearby headstone washed by a storm
to the ground; the shovel blade holds
it all—the tears and the grass and the rain’s
borrowed scent covers the dead
with a choir of things to hold. Song
in the mother mourning, mourning
what is left to hold, holding her one
long note, holding on to its impossible
fermata, to the throat’s quaking acreage,
to the diaphragm’s bellow; the note holds on
and won’t let go, is shaped by this holding,
and is changed by the woman it enters
and changes. Song is changed. She is changed.
And the city is lightless, O God so still.




Dear Mrs. Brazell-Jones,

Did you sing? Not every song’s
a healer; sometimes they call on the wrong
angel, his vein-strung harp and impossible light.
The night’s made strange, made stratagem
for knives. It will happen again, the killer gone
like a season. My pattering feet make a pattern, a chorus
for the dead: Sakia Gunn, Charlie Howard, Arthur “J.R.” Warren.
I bob my head to my escape’s rhythm. I nod
off to sleep in the restless blood. Wait, I heard, your turn.




I called his name but heard my own
come back. In the fog of my breath
a prayer like wool too worn out to warm.
How long does it take a city to discover
how to separate the dead from the soon-dead?
I cut from grief a frieze. Depicted: blood river
let loose for the why? Who’d recognize me
without a head? Fear didn’t have a face
to reveal. In the sinew, a raveling
truth: Osiris yet found—no one can teach how
the rest of us will speak without our mouths.


The rest of us will speak without our mouths.
Truth: Osiris yet found—no one can teach how
to reveal. In the sinew, a raveling
without a head. Fear didn’t have a face
let loose for the why? Who’d recognize me?
I cut from grief a frieze. Depicted: blood river,
how to separate the dead from the soon-dead.
How long does it take a city to discover
a prayer like wool too worn out to warm?
Come back. In the fog of my breath
I called his name but heard my own.




“As is often the case in the disappearance or killing of
young black LGBT men and women, the story was
initially ignored by most mainstream and gay media.”

Rod 2.0 Beta (Feb 13, 2009)


Why did people need to know Brazell was black?
Because a pigeon cooed beneath a car and wasn’t
mistaken for an infant abandoned in a parking lot.
Because a woman speaking Spanish to her son
was forced to become a signifier for poverty.
Because rats that left chicken bones strewn
across the park couldn’t consider who’d be blamed.
Because race wrote him and could not be erased.

Why did people need to know Brazell was gay?
Because every blade has its purpose, its target,
that another’s shame can’t incapacitate.
Because the unknown motive for his murder
could be the unsaid, the twice burying of the dead
making room for others like him to join him.
What does it mean for the living to let the dead speak?
Because no one cared enough when he was only black.




A friend tells me he was attacked with a half-
empty cup of cola and faggot, both thrown from
a passing car’s window late in the evening.

How enter a body not mine and speak
with the cadence of an activist with cola splashing
across sneakers? Narrative tries on its beauty,
its already-passed threshold into darker possibilities.

A boy’s single district has become many
and every violence echoes Rashawn, echoes silence.

My friend, that it could happen again comforts (you live)
and frightens (could die). Again returning
to unseen tortures to enliven them. A newspaper
blows from my hands to the ground. Will I, too,
forget my dead brother and turn my head like a page?




Witness: Staircase leading to the Gates Avenue J Line, Manhattan, NY

I knew



Knew by his focused acceleration—onto
then down—there was danger




His shoes were intent against skin


I am built to carry men
on my back
kicked only to return the sound
they give me

He did not apologize
so I did not warn




as though to repair as though breakage as though
bone-absence required could be sutured by silver
glints brass and wrist turn a name unpuzzled

mind unpuzzles old technology flesh made artifact
unabbreviated though this evidence unevidenced found
distraction thrown out of the case of tools

as though a body gives its weight to sorrow so all
is needed for all the sorrow is it
so bad to sew shut a case with a clue

to borrow a screw here a plier there a bolt a case
needs answers needs to look deeper inside
a ruin no one can hold all of needs to

force light into where light cannot be missing




[…] DNA evidence proved that an empty black bag
sitting in the subway tunnel was used to carry the victim’s
corpse” ( 8-29-2008)

Witness: The Duffel Bag recalls dismemberment

Where was I?

Once to the subway, twice to the recycling plant
I was carried then emptied of my gift. Each time
was like a dream I’d had: power tools rusting
against my zipper mouth, fingerprints stained
against a hammer’s handle, expansion
retraction—metallic lung, inchoate darkness.

Ice crammed in cups of folded feet
stole the final warmth, his hands
stretched across snow-spun air,
his body odor becoming mine.
Already his heart as though my own;
his hands fumbled his loosened seams.

Once to the subway, I was left near a trash bag by my carrier. When he held me we didn’t speak to one another. I don’t know his story.

I was carried then emptied of everything I knew: hammer, flathead, monkey wrench, toenail clipper, Bible against the cross of a tire iron, a knife for each Commandment.

Was like a dream—my carrier’s hands, leaning phone lines blown upright, stone pedestrian faces.

Against my zipper mouth dangles a miniature lock. With what would you test the dark belly of the fissure, unlock skin till it clicks and slides from itself a lit candle? Tell me, what would be the point, then, to see?

Against a hammer’s handle. Against the cold likeness of a doorknob to both question and

Retraction. Sometimes my carrier would reach inside for a blade but pull back, could not, for the life of him, make a choice.

Ice crammed in cups of water sounds like bones. No one listens. They are still alive not to.

Stole the final bit of warmth from the days that have passed, from my carrier, his hands

stretched across snow to feel some sensation. He stretches his collection before him in an arc across the ground, his breath a gray orb of spun air.

His body odor is ghost. You cannot arrest a killer you can’t find. He is nothing and everything you are looking for. All of his secrets becoming mine.

Already his heart as though my own. There is a pulse in me and I call it nothing. I allow a breeze to slip past each zipper tooth. Please. I cannot speak. I hold it all in.




His hands fumble his loosened seams.
Already his heart as though my own,
becoming mine.
His body odor—as spun air—
stretched across snow
from his hands,
stole the final warmth—ice
crammed in cups, retracting
against a hammer’s handle,
against my zipper mouth,
like a dream
I carried and emptied
once on the subway.




Dear Ms. Brazell-Jones,

In an interview, I heard you say
a woman knocked on your door to condemn you
and Rashawn to hell, to preach
about gay sin after your son’s death. Before
my grandfather died he said, You cannot love a god
that you fear. I want to but can’t apologize
for the blade of that woman’s faith, for every door
you enter but never exit.




Daylight comes when it’s good and ready
and no one has paid for the missing bones.

In the scrap yard of memory, to dig and find nothing
has become the sole evidence for missing bones.

In Cayey, Puerto Rico, Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado’s
limbs and head were removed from his torso.

In South Africa, parts of Thapelo Makutle’s
penis and testicles were stuffed into his dead mouth.

A poem demands images. There is no metaphor
worth this amount of flesh, no beauty in ash

from a cigarette lit to cut the edge from a father’s
flailed evening as he sorts through a mesh of fingers.

Perhaps the journalists did it best: listed the dead
and what remained of them. Who cut whose head

off of what body? Suspense over justice. Queer
bodies are always in season to dissect. Still no eyes

can interpret. Who were they before their deaths? Only
doubt holds. Neither hope nor clothes can contest skin’s

tortured palimpsest that holds, then like a parent
lets go. Severed hands comb the air as they fall.




Headline ] “Gay Beau Sought in Body-Chop Slay” [ Interrupted

Tell the story   another burst of difficult publicity   tragic in-the-making
It’s been eight years in the making   this vigil that has not ended

Tell how a city phantoms a boy     phantoms all witnesses
Anonymous woman called during America’s Most Wanted then hung up

 A woman who knew the unknown   disappeared   blended into the crowd
At a march for justice    the promise   $22,000 reward if you have

 Helpful information    kept in the strictest of confidence that I don’t have
Arrest the single photo of Brazell tuxedoed   seeking information

From a still frame   not solving the space between murder and found  
Say gregarious   life of the party   funny   studying Web design   say people

Gravitated naturally to him   say he knew his killer   his killer knew him
He was my best friend his mother said   leading us into her memory

It’s been ten years   and all that’s recalled is dismembered   1-800-577-
TIPS   with my tongue’s tip I might be helpful   this small noise I give




Witness reminisces while chewing gum

There were two pairs of feet twin-tapping: :Each as rhythmic as the other: :Waiting’s rhythm not for train but a moment: :Like when the flavor’s gone all gone and you saved the aluminum wrapper to spit: :I heard next impatience becoming: :Tapping out faster: :Nerves: :Train came but no one exited and the whole time tap tap tap each swifter than the last: :Sudden stop: :Weight: :Gravity wanted inside of me: :What does it mean to be like sound: :How does a body become sound: :I say now to listen: :Even now I sing inhale exhale: :You know: :Even now I’m rocking back and forth in my seat swallowing hard: :I saw closeness: :A familiarity between them easy to mistake as dangerous: :Duffel bag carried by the one looking back: :I turned my head away then back and both were gone: :Now this newspaper puts a dead boy where I was: :My past seeing: :Is it them the headline tells me I saw: :This face a dead boy’s but I only remember the train’s face erasing the track beneath it: :Lights thrown across the tunnel wall: :Red then red then gone




Searching for Rashawn Brazell (search performed 3-14-13)


1 .

“This page is in Japanese. Would you like to translate it?”


Selected translation: hand jobs learn how to you alone in the
office the only man not so much with a woman purchase please
with your credit card sex-shop life to health

2 .

Not Found


Dear Ms. Brazell-Jones,

I love my brother who wasn’t a brother of mine.
Walking in an alley alone at night I bury my hands
in my pockets to appear brotherless, bordered
by the decay blowing from the stench.
To appear brotherless is to appear beyond help,
though you quoted Rashawn saying, No one
is beyond help. Some believe only the already-
destroyed are safe. I try to appear broken in order
to appear unbreakable, not worth further breaking.







His hand.

(still here yes it is still)

The other will not become bird will not be misplaced. Not replenished. Not

(be still        still here)

taken. Never taken. Lord his elbow         may it know morning squeak the itch of presence.

(here   now   still   remains)

We know his hereness has passed into thereness belonging to some unreachable now.

(O Lord his multitudes unbound)

As he belongs now to himself only.  Only to his body.

(it is his            still)

May he in Heaven remember ache of wisdom tooth flowering tender tender.

(how to avoid?  with what language?)

(words blaspheme         syllables mock)

(split from origin—count          count him—)

May he find forgiveness for his complete made incomplete for his tearing

(—count him                tally each piece—)

(where is—)

for this transgression—

(—did you find?—)


(—his mouth—)

for his unmaking—

(—he must speak—)

for his—

(—for himself—)




“…and I want the rest of my child.”—Ms. Brazell-Jones


This lightless city, this steel
god gone off to sleep
in the restless blood
bone-absence required. What is
the space between apology
and warning? I called his name
but heard Let’s go fill
the air. I hold it all
in this restless mouth—
red, red—this small noise
I give. This imagined honor.
Me a small noise, me without
a mouth. This throat scorched
by the truth—say it—not found.


Cover image by Adam Moss.

About the Author:

Phillip B. Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois. A graduate of the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship awardee, Williams is a visiting professor of poetry at Bennington College and Co-Editor in Chief at Vinyl Poetry. His first collection of poems, Thief in the Interior, was published in 2016 by Alice James Books.

Phillip B. Williams, “Witness” from Thief in the Interior. Copyright © 2016 by Phillip B. Williams. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Alice James Books,

Five sections of “Witness” which did not appear in Thief in the Interior are published here for the first time by permission of Phillip B. Williams.  These sections begin with the following titles or first lines:

Dear Mrs. Brazell-Jones, // Did you sing?…

Why did people need to know Brazell was black?

Witness: Staircase leading to the Gates Avenue J Line, Manhattan, NY

Daylight comes when it’s good and ready…

His hand.