J A M E S B U T L E R-G R U E T T
G A B R I E L D O Z A L
LIBERTY ACTIVIST STEVEN JOHNSON: In your notes that morning, you wrote that “I was in a clear Doppler zone.” What is a Doppler zone?
OFFICER ANTIN: Clear Doppler tone.
LIBERTY ACTIVIST STEVEN JOHNSON: Tone?
For a legal poem, there’s no better beginning
than a misheard siren. Step in, Reader. Get
in the zone, Doppler zone, and take Your Honor.
The judge of our chapbook sits wigless in their robes,
in a double-breasted suit the color their enamel should be—
might be, if they were diligent about brushing—
instead of reading legal briefings, late evenings spent before
a legal pad, chosen specifically because its common name is so
appropriate for a judge. Your Honor likes the blue-green horizontal lines,
the yellow paper, and the red vertical lines, the three colors of an
eternal and galactic traffic light bearing down on the judgments you’ll
encounter as you read on, Reader.
Plaintive Plaintiff, our central foe, turns a wry eye toward Steven.
In this first case he tests his mettle against our poor Liberty Activist
on trumped-up charges. It seems he mixes up his tones with his zones
like his cones, like a driving test, like navigating sleepily among a freeway
construction site on an early morning drive to work, his stereo blasting Springsteen,
“I’m on Fire,” and its motorik mayhem, and he wishes now that maybe he had been on fire
instead of brought in here to defend himself against a preposterous speeding ticket.
Here comes Officer Antin with his notes.
Oh, most cops do? Well, Reader, this one shouldn’t have, not with his sloppy handwriting,
tripping up Liberty Activist Steven Johnson, in the free state of Rhode Island, trying to parse
Antin’s ts and ds. The only thing left for them to do his to flay Johnson or put
him in the stocks, handcuff him, put a dunce cap on his curly locks.
As you can see, Reader, from the notes, Johnson does not make a right
at the stoplight, even though Antin says he did. This remains contested.
It remains to be revealed what our verdict will be, and only Your Honor can know.
Only the sketch artists can attest to it now, Reader. Only in Rhode Island
does your voice change with every step you take,
there can this year teach us anything if this year has taught us anything,
only there can we find a buffer zone, a splash zone, in your personal space,
no spin, only there can you turn right at love.
LIBERTY ACTIVIST STEVEN JOHNSON: Is there a personal threshold that you personally abide by when you decide to pull somebody over?
OFFICER ANTIN: I can’t say there’s a personal threshold—
LIBERTY ACTIVIST STEVEN JOHNSON: A professional threshold, perhaps?
OFFICER ANTIN: It depends on the terrain, the pedestrians in the area, weather conditions. There’s a variety of factors I take into account, personally.
Like any good activist-lawyer, Steven knows what to thresh
and what to hold, Your Honor. Should he decide to, he can scatter
Antin’s testimony across the courtroom like so much verbal chaff.
Our personal threshold exists where Steven Johnson drives his life
into it, Your Honor, and we have no choice but to ticket. We’re meter
maids to the poetry of violations, and we must in this case issue
a citation to you, Reader (but never to you, Your Honor, oh never).
The citation’s in MLA, which as far as we know, Your Honor, is still
legal in the state of Rhode Island? Couldn’t resist, couldn’t resist. In
any case, there’s a variety of factors at play:
In Rhode Island, we have a state of limiting mobility. Don’t speed,
don’t run, don’t put your shoes on, don’t pivot, don’t cut, don’t urge,
don’t zoom, don’t rush, don’t hurry. If this year has taught us anything,
it’s not to hurry, a lesson we need to forget.
Reader, if you care about poetry, you have probably not
contested a speeding ticket. Or if you have, work with us here,
humor us. Traffic court is not what you think it is.
It’s a world of neon with Darude
playing on a sweat-soaked Serrano—
and not “Sandstorm,” but the deep cuts, the b-sides.
Don’t be Darude. Be a young Liberty Activist,
faced with Plaintive Plaintiff and a stiff upper lip
to the world of Your Honors. Chambers of accusing angels
and liquidated claims, but you can’t ticket a wave.
Try putting cuffs on an ice cube and see the gas
of your claims pour out magistrates and majuscules.
Your Honor, consider the case before you of Steven Johnson, crosser of thresholds,
Charon of terrains and weathers, who dares to plow
his metal car over the streets and Amber-Depp waves of grain.
He is our first defendant, and we ask you to be lenient!
But the Plaintive Plaintiff, the accusing angel, will not abate, will give no quarter.
Plaintive Plaintiff sits redly among his council,
his rolling chair pushed back and squealing on its hinges. He’s content,
because he knows he’s won. Liberty Activist Steven Johnson has trespassed
a threshold, crossed his legal terrain, and Your Honor?
We ask you to look up from your legal pad and its traffic-light colors
to consider the case before you. Look at the evidence: the Doppler Zone,
the hands that are free, the true Liberty Activist, and the terrain that was crossed.
But no. It’s a dog-up-dog world in this courthouse.
It’s an open secret that Your Honor can see only in shades of red
and yellow and green. All law is a contest, and Steven’s lost this one,
has been working on his tone for years, perfecting the mids, but on that fateful day
it is all lows when he hears the siren toll his name.
Take as our first case the Liberty Activist Steven Johnson.
Steven is but one of many Stevens, glumspun of unluck,
a hapless skull covered in patches of anxious skin. He’s come
to contest a speeding ticket, like all in these poems, and his tone
is set to innocent. Get in the tone, Steven. There’s no mishearing
here, or a misappropriation. It’s an open secret that dear Steven
is colorblind, which forms the core of his defense.
He can’t see the green or the red salsa of the face of…
Who takes notes when they’re on the police route?
Dopplering on. Only
James Butler-Gruett and Gabriel Dozal wrote their first collaborative chapbook, titled Honor Your Speed, written in under a month and centered around ideas of speed, which came out from Osmanthus Press in March of 2020. Two poems from Honor Your Speed appeared in March Xness. The two poems featured above come from their as-yet-unpublished, follow-up chapbook, Speed, Your Honor, which makes use of excerpts from real court transcripts of speeding ticket trials and turns them into absurd, poetic versions of those trials, with their poetic persona acting as defense lawyer. Their poems are a little hard to categorize, which they think is a good thing. They both attended the University of Arizona. Find them on Twitter at @etinarcadia3go and @gabbydozal.