How Long Can the Heart Go On Breaking? Three Poems of Gun Violence in America


As of this writing the United States congress has yet to fulfill its loud and oft-repeated promises of real change in the face of so much American gun violence. As further details are revealed of police incompetence and cowardice in the Uvalde school shooting that left 19 children dead, we wait for those in power to do something meaningful. As Americans continue to die every day in mass shootings, we wait. As gun manufacturers’ stock valuations crescendo in grotesque counterpoint to the deaths they facilitate, we wait. Even after the biggest legislative win for gun control in a generation 18-year-olds can still buy AR-15s. So we wait—we wait for real change, and we wait for the next mass shooting.

In the absence of significant action we are left with our grief and anger, a sense of powerlessness that can feel impossible to articulate. In the three poems below, the first by Alissa Quart, the latter two by Rodrigo Toscano, some measure of our collective hopelessness, our rage, is given voice, as Quart and Toscano confront the hypocrisies and systemic failures at the root of America’s epidemic of gun violence.


“Thoughts and Prayers”
by Alissa Quart

This poem is composed of the public statements around mourning over school shootings, from political leaders and websites, and is excerpted from Thoughts and Prayers, available from O/R Books.


Designed and executed. Us gun owners,
Our thoughts our team’s banner; our assault-
style thoughts and


Praying impacted terrible
prayers on the scene
15 kids AR-15 pure evil
John 16:33 / horrific / my prayers / 1st responders

We continue to keep the victims

Kingdom of God. Columbine. Thoughts and prayers fireside basket.
The thoughts and prayers clear mount stamp

No child, teacher: There’s just no other way to describe it

Our hearts break for all the victims and families affected by today’s

satiation semantic civil religion common spiritual language shooting responders

The whole country stands

My heart is with Las Vegas we continue to keep the victims

My thoughts and prayers are with

$30 million in
donations. Thoughts
and prayers memes
Thoughts and Prayers: The Game,
Thoughts and Prayers tater
tots, A Thoughts and Prayers make-
up tutorial with invisible cosmetics.
Fantasy red blusher: “Blood of Our Children.”
Lifting up in prayer

all impacted by last night’s despicable

armed teachers

relatives affected

The thoughts and prayers stamp. The thoughts and prayers handcrafted
wood card.

The thoughts and prayers angel pin.


“The science” of Thoughts and Prayers.
The ostensibly mixed
research about Thoughts
and Prayers.

My heart is with Parkland. My heart is

running down the hall

our prayers


Two poems by Rodrigo Toscano

The truth is, I don’t want to write poems like this anymore. I don’t want what grounds them (cultures of violence) to dominate another minute of our lives. However, I feel compelled to connect lines of cultural causality that are stubbornly resistant to getting implicated together. Much news reporting seems incapable of honing in on the roots of the multivariate problem. Poetic practices (mine, others’) can lend a hand. Even more, we can simultaneously splice in visions of an alternate future (as in the poem, “Männerbünde”) whereby we fight the contraction of the imagination by directly expanding it.

–Rodrigo Toscano


shedfulls of’em
you’ll see
will not be
the deciding factor
in the big shift
towards hemispheric
autarky, no amount
of rounds and clips
hoarded in safes
will rewrite
labor laws that
integrate Canadian
American, and
Mexican bio-power
around a vision
of itself
protective economically
expansive culturally
interposed maps
of watersheds
routes of produce
conduits of
clean energy
lasered in on
healthy work
and stable housing
the big shift
doesn’t require
belly crawling
sharp shooters
grown boy camps
singalongs pining
after dreams of
becoming sovereign
when all’s entangled
already, except
not formally, and
equitably, set to
a higher order
resource conscious
confident future
collective wealth
material & psychic
brave projection
bulwark against this
faux nationalism
yacht excursion
for winners of
rigged outcomes
swamp monsters
becoming great again
promoting shedfulls
of ammo, camo
grown up boy
lingerie, boudoir
posing on
towering trucks
performing sovereign
when all’s entangled
already, but on
a wobbly base
with side shows
gun shows
crouching, cowering
last gasps of
sovereign kings
everyman a serf
owning nothing
not mineral deposits
not beds of technology
not downstream planning
educational cargo
material & psychic
oblivious to rising
forces, integrated
autarkic, prosperous
homelands to
thrive in, where
crotch grasping
gun toting
enfeebled copes
flicker out
year by year
as hemispheric power
looks outward
with straight backs
towards other
autarkic regions
working on integration
of a higher order
looking outwards
mindfully negotiating
globe’s collective wealth
material & psychic
and yeah, a few
museums of nation-states
and even kinky cosplay
might be entertaining
on occasion
to remind us of
the age of
anarcho-tyranny and its
butlers on a leash



There’s a sub-culture here says
Go ahead, shoot folks

How that culture developed
Is a multivariant problematic

But that it’s a culture—in place
Saying OK—shoot! is a brute fact

Beyond question and denial
It’s an operative code—on a grid

The code is inside the mind
Networked to other minds

The code is floating poltergeist
Weapon nearest at hand

Gun speaks as designed to
Gun has its say and day

Whatever beef’s at hand
Gun is here to lend a hand

“35-year-old fires into chapel”
Gun—as culture—having its way

Most mortals, even bedraggled ones
Don’t prey on other mortals

Most mortals, when pressed
Much prefer another way

But Gun knows opportunities
Situations to spark a fray

“16-year-old wounds 15-year-old”
When called on, Gun doesn’t play

There’s mortals who believe Gun
Everything it says, does, proposes

Some mortals—in fact, venerate
Ritualize worship of Gun

Gun glides through neighborhoods, cities
A whole nation, national culture

In steel vaults, under satin pillows
In glove boxes, sewer drains, in the bayou

Some yearn to become One with Gun
Plot out arena-sized performances

Performances can be monthly or weekly
Aspiring entertainers are recruited

There’s industry movers and shakers
Awards for all roles are meted out

“50-year-old blows brains out”
Out of sight, out of mind, on stage


Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She is the author of the poetry collections Thoughts and Prayers, which included this poem and Monetized as well as four nonfiction books, most recently Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America. She has also executive produced or worked on numerous nonfiction projects about abortion including the Emmy-winning documentary Jackson, The Last Clinic, and Reconception. Her poems have been published in Granta and The Nation, among other publications, and her journalism has appeared in many publications, among them The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Rodrigo Toscano is a poet and essayist based in New Orleans. He is the author of ten books of poetry. His latest book is The Charm & The Dread (Fence Books, 2022). His previous books include In Range, Explosion Rocks Springfield, Deck of Deeds, Collapsible Poetics Theater (a National Poetry Series selection), To Leveling Swerve, Platform, Partisans, and The Disparities. His poetry has appeared in over 20 anthologies, including Best American Poetry and Best American Experimental Poetry (BAX). Toscano has received a New York State Fellowship in Poetry. He won the Edwin Markham 2019 prize for poetry. He works for the Labor Institute in conjunction with the United Steelworkers, the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, National Day Laborers Organizing Network educational / training projects that involve environmental and labor justice culture transformation.