• Teri Ellen Cross Davis

Issue 139 - Black Women Poets


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


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


4 little girls fly into his hands


4 little girlbodies

Boom! go their voices

Boom! goes God’s wail


to God keen Black bodies

become Boom!

cinders on his tongue

grit in his eye

Boom! go God’s hands



Boom! goes Bombingham

flash of

white hands

flash of

Black girls

flash of


That first Boom!



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.


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.