Cotton Field Sestina

by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

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.