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Looking for Matthew

The following is the foreword of Bill Denham’s ‘Looking for Matthew’, a collection of poems.

Matt and me

My heart went cold that September morning when the voice on my cell phone identified herself as an SFPD Homicide Detective. I knew Matthew was dead.

Yet even as I felt the numbness come over me and knew the rage and sorrow that were to come—I am no stranger to loss—I knew a far greater grief, beyond the personal, a profound sadness for the lives of the two young men who murdered Matthew—two young men who must live without hope, like thousands of others, who see no future for themselves and have little regard for life—their own or another’s.

Matt’s short life followed a different arc.

Though he had good reason to despair, though he did struggle and make serious mistakes, he never gave up. He was given away by his biological mother at the age of three—a conscious, painful memory for him—and adopted by a family who, despite good intentions, added further to his trauma. And he did act out during his teenage years. At seventeen he helped his older brother commit an armed robbery. Two years later he turned himself in to the authorities and served eighteen months in San Quentin State Prison.

Not everyone would do that. He had begun to grow up

Matt was a poet. He had been writing and making poems since Middle School, when a large poster of Tupac hung above his bed. In those days we hung out, shot hoops each afternoon and I listened to his poems in the evening after dinner. In prison he took a writing course. Encouraged by his instructor, he wrote poignantly of prison life and his own internal struggles. “Keep at it,” she told him. And he did.

On Saturday night October 15, 2005 he shared the stage with several other spoken word artists, three times his age—myself, Maya Spector and Doug Von Koss—in the old, craftsman sanctuary at Grace North Church in Berkeley and movingly spoke his rap poem, Love, to an attentive audience. The poem, written behind prison bars, is lost, now, along with all his notebooks—taken by vandals after his death.

We loved the spoken word, Matt and I, and he encouraged me to bring my poems to the open mic and join him at The Starry Plough. I never did. But I do make poems like his—poems to be spoken—brought to life by the sounds and rhythms of the human voice. So it is with these poems, born from my grief and spoken aloud, that I honor our common love and his short life.

I knew Matthew for twenty of his twenty-three years. I was part of his complex extended family and assumed a parental role frequently with him and the other children. Growing up he called me Uncle Bill. I speak of him now as my stepson, for his adopted family had disintegrated by his early adolescence and by the time he got out of prison, I was the only parental figure he could call upon. He came to live with me for a year when he got out of San Quentin. The homicide detective found my name and phone number on his emergency card, in his wallet.

Bill Denham, Oakland, California

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