• Teri Ellen Cross Davis

Issue 139 - Black Women Poets

Introduction


These poems represent an intersection in the lives of four women-four poets, four Black women, four women of color. Their work explores the painful loss of history, the intimate aches of family, what makes a family, and how we see and respond to the world around us. Blackness is not a monolithic culture-all of our experiences pull from and create the African diaspora. These poems speak to the moment of Black Lives Matter and beyond it, because next week, next year, twenty years from now, we will still be Black women and what we do and how we love will still matter. We are in this fight for the long haul-toiling in the shadows, yelling to be heard. I say the names of these women as a thank you to them for allowing me to share their work: Saida Agostini, Paulette Bette, Carolyn Joyner, Alexa Patrick.


- Teri Ellen Cross Davis

Teri Ellen Cross Davis


Vous êtes ici

(French for you are here)


In a Paris museum, a cool blast lifts

her white cotton dress, billowing


round her cinnamon legs. C’est Marilyn Monroe

says the man next to her. A smile


charms his laugh, she hastily smooths down

the unintended peep show.


Snapshot: Rain at the Rodin museum, sculptures glisten and glint

Snapshot: Hotel room’s plush velvet curtains, the color of spilled wine


The hairy mound of a bush, framed

Elevated—The Origin of the World.


A Black woman molded in bronze

shouldering Africa as Four Parts of the World.


Snapshot: A small café, a sip of coffee with cream, silk clouds slip down her throat

Snapshot: A perfumerie, discovering scents that will ghosts her footsteps for decades to come.


The best body is often retrospect.

She traveled over 3,000 miles.


A man compared her to an icon—visibility

is more than being seen, it’s not being


erased. On every map,

she remembers to look—



From a more perfect Union, to be published in 2020 by Mad Creek Books and winner of the 2019 Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize.


Copyright © 2020 by Teri Ellen Cross Davis.



About the Author

Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of a more perfect Union, to be published in 2020 by Mad Creek Books and winner of the 2019 Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize. Her first collection, Haint, was published by Gival Press, and won the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is the 2020 Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Memorial Prize winner and a member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. She has received fellowships to attend Cave Canem, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Hedgebrook, Community of Writers Poetry Workshop and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work can be read in many anthologies and journals including: Not Without Our Laughter: poems of joy, humor, and sexuality; Bum Rush The Page: A Def Poetry Jam; and the following journals: Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Mom Egg Review, Natural Bridge, Poet Lore, Harvard Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Tin House. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.



Saida Agostini


we thiefed our name


translate this into any tongue

and you will have a story

of white smooth skinned evangels

with hot palms and unnamed dark

women ready to fuck in the embrace

of open fields. one uncle tells us

of free black men running past

the threat of trinidad into

guyana, another of corsica

still more speak of ships, another

a big rambling house more confused

then its yellow children. everyone

is clumsy with our blood

this—family trees can

prove: look for a root and

sap comes wandering

none of us will ever

know our mothers

just burst

forward from job’s great

black head

lying and feasting.



Copyright © 2020 by Saida Agostini.



granny teaches her children how to eat poison


the lessons starts in Essequibo. the summer of 1965:

a crowded kitchen fat

with pleading, another yellow gal, 20 with three children

all hungry and wailing mummy where daddy? 21 days

spent restless waiting and waiting by an unforgiving door

and empty larder, restless steel pots clanging on the stove


and it goes on like this: with a father shamed home after

three weeks of sweetness with another woman, back

to his own starving children nursed on boiled white rice

spiced with cassareep. his own belly big from love while

his wife spins time into fields of obeisance, all this love that

cannot be made into survival without him. three weeks of

hunger becomes love the women he fucks ghosts

and so on, until she can’t eat without that lump in her throat

that makes her want to bawl out onto the street screaming

me husband don’ wan’me

me husband don’ wan’ me

watch her banging and banging these pots

cooking down truth into an inchoate stew


domesticate hurt into a monster we trust

more than our own eyes.

help us still love a congregation of men and the brute

country that made them until we while away whole life

times singing hymns that make us fat with belief

he doesn’t beat me it’s the evil eye why leave him



this litany sang as she watches the blossoming

bruise on my own mummy’s arm

twenty years later while I play house at their feet,

set a plate brimming before her and say eat

meaning let your children live.


Copyright © 2020 by Saida Agostini.



good favor

after great great granny’s photograph


like any good higue, i was beautiful

once: this picture is proof enough

of blood, proof that something

nameless can and will haunt you

how one generation’s griefs

can abide for a thousand more

my own daughter could not

speak of me for the century

of her life without tears

that water blessed me

as did her silence

your mother would

tell you don’t ask great granny

about her mummy and so you

obeyed, just sucked back

words into your throat

where everything beautiful

and grieving can be caught.

this kind of quiet is an impossible

love. black folks don’t get

to own their bodies, why

should their names

be different? I was murdered

by my husband’s hand

and now even in death

you let him get the last word.

my picture is

a talisman perched

in every last one

of my grandchildren’s

homes. me bonnetted

and severe in stiff colorless

splendor: let this picture

be a lesson, the yeast

that finally makes you rise up

against any fool who tries

to say they know you how

you lived because they

believe they know

how you died



Copyright © 2020 by Saida Agostini.



what love is

after Phillip Levine


you are 8, holding hands with

your little sister in the back of your father’s car,

watching as he slows the engine down to a

bare murmur and pleads with your mother

marching down the highway, the flowers

on her hat trembling like her hands as

she walks away from her husband

as if she could walk away from this life

and all she borrowed to buy it.

you will focus on your father’s pleadings

the empty promises to treat her kindly,

stop sleeping with other women, and

your sister will start to wail asking

is mummy not coming back home

no one has the breath to answer her,

least of all you. in your baby wisdom,

all you can do is wish beyond heaven

that she won’t listen to daddy’s lies

keep marching away from that car

and be happy without you

you’ll look at the dead

buck on the side of the road, next to

your mother, as she stops to listen

to your father’s lies, the deer’s neck

smashed, his body still

beautiful, the fur soft, flesh ripped

exposing a dark black machine

so soft, stinking and fragile that years

later you’ll remember the risk of loving

something that wild. what it gave up

to run across that road, the sheer

dumb luck it held for the thousands

of days it ran riot over a shrinking

forest, and the men determined to kill

it, halve its neck and embrace the head

as a trophy. one day, you’ll be brave

and ask your mother why she stayed

why she kept her children and raised

them with a man who thought taming

was an act of tenderness. you won’t

listen to the answer



Copyright © 2020 by Saida Agostini.



About the Author

Saida Agostini is a queer Afro-Guyanese poet whose work explores the ways that Black folks harness mythology to enter the fantastic. Saida’s poetry can be found in Barrelhouse Magazine, the Black Ladies Brunch Collective’s anthology, Not Without Our Laughter, and other publications. Her first collection of poems, just let the dead in, was a finalist for the Center of African American Poetry & Poetics’ 2020 Book Prize, as well as the New Issues Poetry Prize. Her first chapbook, STUNT, will be released by Neon Hemlock in the fall of 2020.


A Cave Canem Graduate Fellow, Saida has been awarded honors and support for her work by the Watering Hole and Blue Mountain Center, as well as a 2018 Rubys Grant funding travel to Guyana to support the completion of her first manuscript. She lives online at: www.saidaagostini.com.



Paulette Beete


Poem for a Pandemic of Dead Black Bodies

for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd


step on my neck

break my mother back


to ancestral grief

ashed in black mouths


wail the names of the dead

wail their true names, wail


beloved beloved

belovedbelovedbelovedbeloved


ash filling mouths

filled with grief, filled with howl


filled with rage, filled with hurt

filled with wounds


of whiteness threatened, threatening

white words that mean


know your place

know your grief


has no synonym in white words

that burn black bodies to ash


falling falling falling falling falling

brown skin bludgeoned and whipped


whip light as an anvil

whip light as a sledgehammer


whip light as history falling full

of white words words words words


out of reach out of reach out of reach black freedom

out of reach out of reach out of reach black justice

out of reach out of reach out of reach the end of grief


white time ticking like a bomb

hungry for black bodies


white bodies thrive like grief

thrives in black bodies


kidnapped by white rage

broken by white rage


black bodies as justice

for white rage


whiteness burning black bodies

cities burning like black freedom

burning in black mouths choked with ash



Copyright © 2020 by Paulette Beete.



all the gods go Boom!


4 little girls

go Boom


ribbons go

4 little smiles


God goes—


4 little girls fly out of his hands

Boom!


4 little girls fly into his hands

Boom!


4 little girlbodies


Boom! go their voices

Boom! goes God’s wail

listen

to God keen Black bodies

become Boom!

cinders on his tongue

grit in his eye


Boom! go God’s hands

empty

lonely


Boom! goes Bombingham


flash of

white hands

flash of

Black girls

flash of

——


That first Boom!

still

howling

how long


Black bodies

holler Oh! Ow! Boom!


sing Boom!

clap Boom!

wail Boom!

catch Boom!

die Boom!

God Boom!

catch God!

oh God!

oh Boom!

—oh God!



Copyright © 2020 by Paulette Beete.



Study for A Man in Relation to His Child


In this poem my father is an absence.

In another poem, I might hardly miss him.

In another yet he is alive and well


or he is a man without a daughter

-sized space within him.

He is an ordinary man.


These are only guesses.

I do not know what truth sounds like,

if that is what’s knocking at the door.


If I knew how to write who my father was

I wouldn’t write this poem.


If I could apprehend my father in the language of

fathering I wouldn’t write this poem.


I do not know how tall my father is.

I do not know how much he weighs.


Sometimes he wears a mustache.

Sometimes he doesn’t.


How should he look in this poem?

Which of his shadows should I hold onto?


If I bring my father back to life how can I

make myself appear life-sized in his eyes?



Copyright © 2020 by Paulette Beete.



Some of my best friends are white . . .


Some of my best friends are white.

How do I betray myself in loving them?


What of this Black self do I amputate?

I don’t doubt that they do love me and


I doubt that they can love me.

What gymnastics of whiteness


make my Blackness bearable?

How have I undone myself?


In the mouths of my White friends

I am unnamed like in a book I read


that told how someone can destroy you

if you give them your true name.


I see now I am their pet. No—

I am their beloved.


We are separate but unequal

in our love for one another.


They hide in their whiteness.

I hide in their whiteness.


Even if I can palliate the infection so only one drop

of whiteness remains —am I still stained?


Each time I pull a white friend to my breast

do I colonize myself again again?



Copyright © 2020 by Paulette Beete.



About the Author

Paulette Beete’s poems, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in journals including Crab Orchard Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Always Crashing, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly, among many others, and in the anthologies Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC and Saints of Hysteria (with Danna Ephland). She has also published two chapbooks of poetry: Blues for a Pretty Girl (Finishing Line Press) and Voice Lessons (Plan B Press). She has been a Winter Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and several of her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Maryland.



Carolyn Joyner


Nothing but A Ragged Wound*

after Natasha Tretheway


Like the moon that night, my son

wanes into a likeness of his child’s past self,

as if returning to a place of new beginning

where once he had begun.


He wanes into a likeness of his child’s past self.

Soon, earthly dreams will ink black,

as he returns to where he’d once begun,

becomes the breath he will have lost.


Soon, earthly dreams will ink black.

I wonder if he’ll meet surprises upon his death

as he becomes the breath he will have lost,

closes his gaped mouth to pose a smile.


I wonder if he’ll meet surprises upon his death

when his face lights up, a tropical sun beneath,

his gaped mouth closes to pose a smile.

A big air walks into my sorrow.


When his face lights up, a tropical sun beneath,

I begin to ride the red possession of regret,*

beg for a big air to walk into my sorrow,

erase memories of me trying to wash him from my womb.


I begin to ride the red possession of regret—

for him having a father who never saw his good,

me trying to wash him from my womb.

I am lament’s muted dirge.


His father never saw his good.

I retreat into the valley of the shadow,

lament’s muted dirge, my child’s past self-waning

like the moon that night—my son.


* Gwendolyn Brooks quoted phrases



Copyright © 2020 by Carolyn Joyner.



Umbilical


He dies with a tube in his stomach,

inching tawny liquid into a bedside


bag. The color changes when he drinks

strawberry vitamin water, and finally,


when he doesn’t. I sit in the blue

sleeping chair next to him, a sentinel


guarding body fluids like treasure.

Each hue in the dark rainbow


tells a story. The yellow-red beckons

me to float its segue to copper-brown.


My head begins to dizzy, limbs turn to dust;

I know the ruddy swirl he leaks is mine—


the blood I’d given him when he lived inside,

that ushered him into manhood, let him


make mortgage deals, groove to Chuck’s go-go.

The supple tube it pulses is umbilical, cancer


the placenta to which it is attached, like a mother’s belly

in delivery turned inside out, giving birth to death.



Copyright © 2020 by Carolyn Joyner.



Feelin’ Red


kinky and cool, saucy and irreverent,

a little wicked even, yet, mesmerizing—

a blend of call-back-the-dead red

smoldering in a cognac and cashmere

voice and 5-inch stilettos spiking

the samba dance floor—an aroma

of ginger with whiffs of mango

chutney and cinnamon at its edges.

Red as in, “Yo, baby, you rockin’

those jeans.“ Talkin’ ’bout the delicious

hugging an apple’s shine, the blush

in freshly spanked cheeks, a sacred

sister giggling deep, speaking in wild

mimosa tongue. I’m that ribbon kiting

a brazen breeze, silken and surprising,

my body’s rooms home to a hellcat

itch to bray at the moon (in the daytime),

boast, I let the dogs out—unbleached

American guerilla dogs, tethered

to the cave of my black skin, barking

house-on-fire red, about to leap.


Copyright © 2020 by Carolyn Joyner.



The Big Lie


Dying wasn’t something you’d do. I wouldn’t

let you think you were because I couldn’t, because

nothing would make you dead, because you were

the life that would beat death, because if it


Glory, glory . . .


came looking, I’d hide you behind my back, set fire

to its chill. There was no talk of its long legs,

our chests puffed-up with its foul breath. I let

truth rage behind invisible walls, knowing’s


hallelujah!


vaulted niches. The Big Lie. I lived it—visceral

armor for lungs, heart, gut—gift of second

skin that kept me safe inside, didn’t fall

away until long after you were gone.


His truth . . .


It was the only way to get out of bed,

put off tomorrow’s long-suffering today.


is marching on.



Copyright © 2020 by Carolyn Joyner.



About the Author

Carolyn Joyner, a Washington, DC poet, examines life’s themes in her work through the use of contemporary and traditional form. She has been featured in various literary magazines and anthologies, among them, Revise the Psalm, Obsidian, Pleiades, Gathering Ground, Beyond the Frontier, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. She has a Master of Arts degree in creative writing from The Johns Hopkins University, is a Cave Canem and Hurston-Wright Foundation fellow, and has been awarded artist fellowship grants from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.



Alexa Patrick


The Black Men Outside the Waterfront Safeway Catcall Me


& I’m sure it’s not me who they call for;

D.C. winters make any contact,

flickering lash, a fire to put your hands over.


They stand like barren trees,

crooked teeth shiver like hood castanets,

remind them of worlds other than corners.


I wonder who they have at home to be tender to,

if they paid the bill, if this small moment

of devotion runs like a furnace.


In this city of rush hours and new buildings,

of no one here is from here anymore,

even the air becomes brittle with lonely;

maybe, they yell I love you, just to hear the echo.



Copyright © 2020 by Alexa Patrick.



My Mother Once Flattened My Father’s Tires


because my father

kept driving on the grass

after my mother

told him not to,

and it only a few months

after the divorce finalized.

She, anticipating his disobedience

(with a puncturing joy)

delicately placed 11 nails

on the barren area

and awaited his return.


I still hear

the rusted words crowd

the rental car, swell

enough to drown

Stevie Wonder’s A Time to Love,

cooing in the background.


I knew

the Toys R’ Us sprees,

the large pizzas,

had deeper roots

yet to surface

each feeling more apology

than play, my father’s face

cracked like a drought,

the lack of sleep, something

running him over.


My mother was just fine.

Wanted my father gone, but

the lawn to keep

the flowers he planted.

Bulbs knotted, stubborn

fists refusing to sprout, or

take direction.


My mother took

consequence

into her hands,

tilled it with green thumbs,

tells the story to this day

behind laughter.


My father drove us back

after two days

at the Sheraton,

after swimming pools,

movies, a small vacation

from a home

to which he never

fully returns.


Every time he does,

my brother and I grow

taller, like weeds, he says,

mourning what he

can no longer tend to,

has only half of,

a garden of grief

pressed at his skin.


Again, he dropped us off,

ran over the grass,

backed out

of his once-driveway.


Shaking her head,

my mother watched

him try to resow

what power he had,

then leave, confident,

like she wouldn’t

eventually

make her point.



Copyright © 2020 by Alexa Patrick.



Ode to the Hickey


Some call it childish,

result of clumsy, eager,

not watching your mouth,

or its mess,

a silent come here finishing

in a loud, deep purple.


When it is honest it is

all breath, and spit, and now,

and now, the blood beneath

the surface, whispering

a sweet nothing.


A smaller me might have

worn scarves in summer

just to hide what my skin wanted,

when boys thought me too Black

to bloom a bruise.


Now, no material compares

to the silk of a proud lover,

who claims me, shouts

against my neck a panting hue,

a pendant to proximity.


I trace the edges in the mirror,

thank all the boys

whose secret I was.

My grown self gladly

trading shame for

public side eyes,

wolf whistles,

wrapped like garments

around my throat.



Copyright © 2020 by Alexa Patrick.




Sugar


Gathered like sunflowers

at the breakfast table,

six sisters share a midnight,

wash down 7Up cake

with the kind of laughter

reminding you they are

in the choir,

bells in their throats

like hallelujah,

the sweetest thing.


This, before their hands cracked

from prayer and spanking babies,

when they’d pinch blood

into their cheeks,

fix the lipstick gracefully

announcing the small mole

they all kept at the corner

of their mouths. So pretty,

even their sharpest words

were frosted.


I come from sugar

the way a hymn comes

from grief or praise;

I have so many ways

to return:


Grease my scalp with the same oil

I use for pans and find myself

in a Pittsburgh kitchen,

forget everyone’s name

and weep because I love them,

dream of pistols under pillows,

wake up bitter about husbands

I don’t yet have. Every morning

rises a manicured finger

pointing home.


Geraldine went first,

winked at my mother

from the casket.

Willa passed

on her 102nd birthday.

They all know how to make an exit,

make us mourn in confection.


Their grace, not dead,

heirloomed,

like beauty mark

or recipe, there

even in the cavities

left behind.


Their stories coat my teeth;


I, too, am beside them.

Never alone or lost, just alive,

with their names trailing

like crumbs to God.



Copyright © 2020 by Alexa Patrick.



About the Author

Alexa Patrick is a singer and poet from Connecticut. Alexa is a Cave Canem Fellow and 2019 Head Coach of the D.C. Youth Slam Team. She has held teaching positions through Split This Rock, The University of the District of Columbia, and the Center for Creative Youth at Wesleyan University. She has also coached the slam teams of American University and George Washington University for the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational. You may find Alexa’s work published in The Quarry, Gargoyle, CRWN Magazine, and The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic.




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