To Mrs. Willa Bruce – EJ Bowman

You have never heard of me,
but I thought of you all afternoon.
The sun flooded the 405 North
which is really West
but you know that;
you lived here.
Well—you lived here before
when 26th Street and Highland was the intersection
of arms out wide and taking back
a little of what was yours.

Like another Willa I know you
were the daughter of pioneers,
forging life on a new frontier
hands out hands out
for more
for everything:
the open sand aggressive brine
for the church folks wandering in
on soft grass
or more likely wandering around the pier
a parcel on the bluff lined with
high wire and signs that read
“No Trespassing.”

You share a name with
Willa Cather and my niece, Willa,
who broke my heart twice
first by being my niece and next
by dying three days later.
Like you, they had their hands out
made space for the rest
families and kites and picnic revivals and just
the pleasure of safe and sunny company.

You should know we got your beach back
and that’s just the start of it
We promise;
we’ll make sure it sticks
this time.
We’re erecting your name and
I know it doesn’t settle
a hundred years of cultural vendetta
but it’s the least we could do,
the least we could do.

Let’s forget it took the life
of another black man to change our mind
at a time when policies proved in your favor
and a bit of public goodwill was just too much
to turn down.
Let’s overlook for the moment
the Concerned White Neighbors who
couched an anonymous protest in the pages
of a local publication
insisting that they are Not Racist
but cleverly refusing to admit
the century of benefits that we’ve enjoyed
on the backs of those who were

Maybe a statue and
maybe a parade
[we’ll try not to condescend]
on a single day in June
and here, here is this little thing
that you should have had all along.
we feel so much better now.

Leave us to wrestle with our history
a smallish self-congratulatory edict
and a drive-by headline
The right move but it’s still
too diminutive to sound if
we cannot keep from centering ourselves,
our whiteness and our delicious guilt
and hashtag activism that mostly
lives online and is forgotten by
its first birthday:
the least we could do.
The least we could do.

Mrs. Bruce, forgive me the
lack of poetic subtlety;
I am all out of euphemism.

Some days it marks me how little can change
in one hundred years
We haven’t really fixed anything,
haven’t reshingled
haven’t moved on and really
are we safer than we
might have been But
we got your beach back.
I’m sorry it took
so long.

The 2021 return of Bruce’s Beach to the Bruce family after a century of jurisdictional malfeasance under the guise of eminent domain is evidence that California is headed towards reparations; however, my sincere hope is that the gesture outgrows itself—a good first step, maybe, but certainly not the end of a very long road.

EJ Bowman is an English teacher and writer from CA. Bowman has recently been named a finalist for both the DeBiase Poetry Prize and the Florida Review 2021 Editor’s Choice Award; Bowman was also long listed for the Exeter Short Story Award. This summer, Bowman finished a writers residency at the Rockvale Writers Colony in TN. Bowman is currently a student at the Writers Studio (University of Chicago) and a member of the Community Literature Initiative at the University of Southern California.