“I am in exile. Like everybody else, I live in a world that is given to me ...
But it is not my native home.”
- Paul Goodman, “Speaking and Language,” Defence of Poetry, 1971
A woman I know well has stolen my face.
She answers for me when someone asks my profession:
Writer, she says, then readies our body for the certain assault.
She makes small talk with my family
about the births and deaths of old neighbors and friends
and sidesteps the cancer that licks at my mother’s brain,
malignancy that waits for my own breast or bones or lungs.
The woman has died for me a thousand times.
tends the pocks and scars that come from simple breathing.
When I am in the company of black poets, she holds
my tongue. Does not protest against the suitable way
to be black enough ... (write black enough poems).
My children adore her. She tells them stories
about how they came to be, gives them James Brown
over a plate of dirty rice, peach chutney and fried fish.
But there are days my son detects me (a front
can lie; a back always tells). He walks around the back of me
to find the face. Somewhere in the contour
of practiced muscle and grin, he discovers the brittle pupils,
cups the raised cheekbones, pulls me eye-to-his-eye,
asks the face: Mommy, are you there?
for JVK (12.16.00 7.16.03)
In the small, private eon after the gun goes off, I check
to see if we are dead, if the burden of bodies huddled in my bed
is bloody, insides out. The bullet has missed us all
baby brother beneath the covers clasped below my ribs,
another brother fastened around my neck,
Mama, knife in hand, crouched near the footboard,
and me, screaming. Above the heartbeat in my throat,
and the creaking mattress coils, I am the lead noise
in the night. We are waiting for the footsteps in the hallway
to get to us.
I imagine how we will look on the front page
next to the missing Atlanta children. Know our names
will stretch out beneath black headlines and taut white smiles.
We could be remembered as happy and well-fed. As Smart,
Our Boy, and The Baby In that order. As She Worked Hard
For Her Kids. As What Was Wrong With Him? The world
would begin to identify us through the half-unknowing anecdotes
of John Aruja or Alice Pierce, by the dusty path we walk
each morning to the row of mailboxes on Carolina Rest Home
Road. In order to catch a yellow bus to school. Edward Hope
Smith, Alfred Evans, Angel Lenair, Milton Harvey, Yusef Bell ...
We could be among those names. Cherryl, Toby, Chadric
and Vivian Floyd. And Wallace, the distraught husband, my father,
who might send our bodies plunging, afterwards, a splash
from the Gaston River Bridge.
I smell smoke. The roof of my mouth burns with tears. His footfall
reaches the door to my room. The knob turns. The shadow,
my father (who does not smoke) walks into my scream. Diffuses it.
Where is the gun? A cig hangs from his face. I can make out
the dimpled embers near his mouth. Ash. My eyes are swimming
in the smoky corona of light.
* * *
Cherryl Floyd-Miller is a poet/playwright/director living in Atlanta. Her work has been published in North Carolina Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Open City, The American Muse, and several anthologies. She's held writing fellowships with Cave Canem, Caldera, Idyllwild Summer in Poetry, the Vermont Studio Center and the Indiana Arts Commission. She is an MFA candidate for playwriting and poetry at Goddard College.