Poetry Moment: 'Murmur' by Cameron Barnett
Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Todd Davis is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona.
This episode’s poem is “Murmur” by Cameron Barnett.
Cameron Barnett lives and writes in Pittsburgh where he teaches middle school at Falk Laboratory School, his alma mater. He is the author of The Drowning Boy's Guide to Water, winner of the Autumn House Press Rising Writer Contest and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. His second book of poems, Murmur, will be published by Autumn House in 2024. He is the winner of the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Award for Emerging Artists and is currently the Emerging Black Writer in Residence at Chatham University. His work explores the complexity of race and the body for Black people in today’s America.
In “Murmur,” Barnett reveals a history with an early diagnosis of a heart condition, calling it his “first ghost,” and as the poem’s narrative unfurls, we learn of other ghosts that enter his life, the ways he “beat” his heart or had it broken, offering a glimpse into what it might be like to grow up black in America. As the poet confesses, “I always fear, like too many Black men, that a heart is not enough / to keep me alive.”
This became my first ghost: the drum of a stethoscope
to my infant chest, an echo deep in a doctor’s ear,
the sound she heard, named it murmur—a swoosh
in the space between the beatings of my youngest heart.
When I’d run around as a toddler, my mother
always anticipated me falling down and not getting back up.
Later, my father’s stethoscope told us there was nothing
there—this became my second ghost. I played every sport
I could growing up. I ran until no kid in my class could
out pace me. I beat my heart up and down playgrounds
and courts, through grass stains and bloody knees.
I wanted to learn how to make my heart sing
and I wanted to silence it too, but always my mother’s gaze
pressed heavy on me. Be careful she would say and Be careful
dad would say. I ignored them. When I did karate
in high school, squaring up against men twice my size,
my mother said Be careful and my father said Be smart
and because I didn’t care for my heart then, I was careless.
Heartbreak came when I fell in love for the first time
and my mother said nothing and my father said nothing
and years passed with no echo to interrupt the ending,
as they held me and we all listened to my third ghost
singing in the space between the beatings. And now I run,
miles a day, for my health; and now I am a haunted house
of scars; and now I always fear, like too many men
in my family, that I will die because of my heart;
I always fear, like too many Black men, that a heart is not enough
to keep me alive. We are all ghost stories, silent chests,
a heavy wager of collapse, and isn’t this
what all our mothers fear?— the fourth ghost: every echo
of love misplaced somewhere deep in our hearts,
reconvening over us in our stillness,
murmuring Be careful.
That was “Murmur” by Cameron Barnett.
Hear more episodes of Poetry Moment at WPSU.org/poetrymoment.
Music by Eric Ian Farmer.