by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Giving Thanks for Water
Before moving to Oklahoma, I read up
on the riots in Tulsa and was shocked.
I had thought they only did things like that down home,
back in the Deep South. I guess I was wrong.
Ugliness is an obsession of mine
and I read the news on 1921
as if that year wasn’t gone,
disappeared in backward smoke,
and those judges weren’t waiting
for the last witnesses, stubborn old folk,
to die and take their goddamned
memories with them:
Dick and Sarah black shoeshine man
white elevator woman I heard tell he grabbed
her did he grab her white grabbed her
woman molotov cocktails
dropped black burned to Sodom’s ash
man dozens bodies stacked
up hundreds unmarked graves
thousands I heard tell
Around this city, skirting the edge,
I see a few trees—at last—in shy clumps.
I’m driving past Tulsa,
headed for home.
What I know now vindicates—
a bit—my beloved South.
This morning, I took a shower
and gave thanks for water,
for the cleanliness next to my skin.
One of the girls of Little Africa
hid in a pigpen and lived
through Black Wall Street burning
Thank God for swine, filth, Noah’s rain,
for memory’s long-lived, pointing finger.
Let Blood Go
East and then south, the land is prettier,
though rough, wild. Lilac peeks
between trees like a pair of coy eyes.
Arkansas, Tennessee, finally Mississippi.
Some home feeling inside—
I’m in Negro territory.
Though there’s no cotton, nappy and overgrown,
by this long highway, there is grass.
And trees, branches twisted
like a back broken down the spine.
I should feel afraid driving through this,
day or night, but I don’t. I know this dystopia,
can name the sins of familiars here.
There’s comfort in Confederate
flag stickers, gun racks in the backs of pickups,
the coldness in the eyes of some whites,
resignation in the eyes of others,
and black folk rolling with what comes, surviving—
some are angry, but most have let blood go.
Nostalgia washes over me,
and when I stop to eat in Holly Springs,
I order fried chicken. I look the young
waitress right in her (of course) blue eyes,
wish I was a brother committing a crime,
reckless eyeballing, whistling for Emmett Till,
but this child is sweet—Yes, ma’am.
Born about sixteen years ago
with a guiltless, bare soul.
And who am I? A woman,
same as what this sweet child—
blue eyes—standing before me will become,
a woman like Emmett’s mother.
Blue eyes, this land—O Mamie, Mama, Mississippi,
bless this blood searching east and south.
And your son’s heart buried,
then unearthed from kin dirt.
Cotton Field Sestina
The bolls by the side of the road—
at first this picture of startling cream lies
to the senses—maybe snow?—but the blues
rises up, the heat rises up, the sweat—so much water
down my neck. At last I see the dusty
flecks are cotton, what I should know in my gut.
On the radio, the song plucked on a gut
string reminds me this is a hard road
I tried to leave behind haloed by dust,
along with the poetics of lies.
I think of ancestry: copper folk gone, salt water
Africans bent over the land, original blues.
Come back home, girl. Isn’t my blues
about reconciliation, not escape? What my gut
hollers, thus speaks the guilty water
chattering down my face? This road
is my lonely path cut through trees, lying
like a frog-fed snake in the dust.
I remember: feet caked with red dust,
tongues coated with loud blues.
I remember: old men telling them lies
and their good deep laughter in the gut—
what waits for me down this road
if I could cross the big water
of my fear, of my guilt, drink the water
thirsty in the women’s veins, shake the dust
from my clothes and whisper the road,
hear the country voices raised in drylongso blues.
First, I have to crawl through my mother’s gut
past the long braid of her lies.
My mother, my mama, she calls me a liar,
she denies me her waters,
turns me out of her sweet gut
if I don’t shake loose my fist of grave dust,
if I don’t stop writing down my blues,
if I don’t trot behind her on her smooth road.
Come back home, girl to what lies in Georgia dust:
no love in truth’s water, no birdsong blues,
no home in my gut—cotton by the roadside.
I sit on the porch of a small, gray house
in the town where Harris met
and stole Remus, Rabbit,
the stories of those who call this place home.
An agrarian lack now in this yard:
no flowers rioting around windows,
or that one pine tree my first love across the street
and I leaned against when we kissed.
My grandmother dead six years—that lost
Eatonton appears only on my page.
The tomatoes, squash, collard greens
in the furrowed garden gone, too,
from the back yard where I played, sharecroppers’
progeny, assured of place,
safe inside the walls of a segregated street
over the tracks,
calmed by what I could name.
At least, something I claimed.
This summer afternoon,
sitting on this porch, I see
the pale children of Harris walk
to the corner, unheeding history,
mingling with lesser brethren.
White kids don’t need to sneak these days.
They can stand unafraid in this bad, black
neighborhood, bob heads to the music of cars
passing, hand over their money, in glaring
daylight, for joints rolled tight into fists.
Some things don’t change.
The street remains segregated—
not even poor whites live here—
and there is the scent of honeysuckle
from a block over. The old tropes:
a woman, grown and moved away,
returns once a year
to sit on a porch, faithful stage,
feel guilty about leaving back in the day,
and wait for her first love
who pressed her into a pine tree
cut down years ago.
That man who stays outdoors long
into night, unheeding
the waiting woman who left him as a girl,
tries to coax a broke-down car into life.
And brothers on the corner, perennials,
talking trash, Rabbit’s kin
chasing what they can’t catch
in this stolen, red scrap of home,
this bottom, what Harris snatched
without a blush—the briar patch.