Teri Vela’s poem, “Animal Cruelty,” is a poem whose speaker pays attention. Just as much as the poem pays attention, it moves from one physical and emotional plane to the next with grace. In the opening of “Animal Cruelty,” the speaker zeroes in on microaggressions while speaking with her therapist; the speaker overhears insensitive American officers talk about their experiences on the job; the speaker recalls concrete details of a client she once worked with; the speaker picks up on the nuance of the system within which she works and the system within which she is trying to change.
After reading Teri’s poem for the first time, I knew that this was a poem that needed to exist in the world for its ability to rehumanize. “Animal Cruelty” both pushes against and moves with the current of Systems in the United States of America. One on hand, the poem breaks the narrative that people of color do not seek out therapy or mental health professionals; but on the other hand, the poem reminds us that the criminal justice system is a haunt; on either either, people of color are often dealt some kind of minor injustice—be it through acts of dehumanization or through acts of microaggressions.
Vela’s poem, “Animal Cruelty,” reminds me of a quote from Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing. In the book, Odell writes that “[i]t is with acts of attention that we decide who to hear, who to see, and who in our world has agency. In this way, attention forms the ground not just for love, but for ethics.” More than reveling in the muck and maltreatment of people of color in the medical and carceral systems of the United States of America, Vela’s poem gives humanity back to the speakers sitting on the therapists’ couch, to the woman who had no other option but to put down her dog, to the speaker’s cousin who is afraid of control. “Animal Cruelty” reminds me that we must do more than simply pay attention, but that we must also hear, see, and love others with nuance.
Jason Harris is an American writer. His interests include listening to true crime podcasts, practicing negative visualization, revision, and finding associative links between disparate ideas. He is a Graduate Poetry Fellow of The Watering Hole. He is also the 2021 Barbara Smith Writer-in-Residence at Twelve Literary Arts. His first poetry collection is forthcoming. To read more of Jason's work, you may visit his website:jasonharriswriter.com.