Because they put so little on our plates
I took to rising while they slept to fill the pockets
of my nightdress with the stale end of bread
and any scrap of meat still clinging to the bone.
Every morning through the open window
I would listen to his ax meet the flesh of oak, pine
and birch, gorging on the scraps I’d stolen.
But his wife grew tired of empty cabinets and hungry children
so he led us out through his killing fields,
past thick stumps the underbrush was overtaking.
All night the wind grating up against the trunks of pines
and we gathered up the small white stones,
each pebble brought us a step toward home.
Soon I could not help but take to thievery again,
I’d run a finger along the sides of the jar of jelly,
lick off what little I’d been able to scrape up.
The second time he led us out into the woods
we had no stones to guide us back, you know this,
and that the avarice of animals left us lost there
with our empty bellies to think of.
I ’d been so long in the forest that I grew to love
that haggard woman, drawn in by the feel of sugar on my tongue
and then later by the scent of lemon grass and fennel seeds
that clung to the creases of her soiled dress.
For weeks I heard Hansel whimpering
inside the stable but steadied my hands
on the ash wood of the broom stalk,
soothed by the sweep of birch twigs
across the bare floor.
Everyday I brought him cake and ham on the bone,
fattening him for her feast, slipped the few strips of bread
she’d give me onto his plate and slide the tray across the straw.
As the crumbs tumbled from his chin I turned away
safeguarded by starvation now.
I grew gaunt and strong, learned to stir the pot
and carve the meat without slipping a single slice
into my mouth. I bore the weight of water,
carried pales back from the well and never spill a drop.
I knew her red eyes were nearly blind
but never once tried to lift the keys from the stand
beside her bed. I grew to almost worship the way
the morning crept in through the curtains,
leaving shards of darkness in the corner.
That last morning, when she handed me to matches
and the kindling, she looked at me the way my mother
had once inspected bruised apples on the branch
and deemed that they would do. And then there was
the feel of my own hand at her back, the thick wool
of her sweater scratching my fingers as I pushed her
into the flames.
The night we brought her fortune to him,
my father laid a bowl of peaches on the table
and I drove the prongs of my fork
in slowly, as if each slice
were something I should puncture
and let bleed.
I tried to learn again to chew,
to let food lay heavy on my tongue,
but as he gently goaded me to take
another forkful, the syrup stung the soft sides
of my mouth.
.I have learned to cook again,
to bear the weight of cast iron pots,
to slice the onions thick and cube the beef for stew.
But now and then I wake to the darkness
just above my bed and think of wandering back
into the woods.
Imagine I might find her still in that cottage,
burned but breathing,
that I might sit beside her bed,
in that house where even peppermint
and gumdrops could not lure me from my bed.
But tonight, I lie down beside my father’s
weathered stumps, coat my fingers in the sap
of bleeding pines and run my sticky hand
across each band of rib bone, hone the cage
around my heart as if it were a shield.
originally published in 4 am Poetry Review
Hoping to find you,
I come again to this place where you
tore through stony soil to plant
the willow hovering above me.
You must have strained against its weight,
the coarse burlap of balled roots leaving a trail
of scratches across your forearms as you labored
to keep it clear of the belly where I burrowed,
siphoning off what my growth demanded.
I lay silent beneath stretched skin,
an amniotic pirate, pilfering from your veins.
You struggled fourteen hours that night to expel me,
and all I left behind was the sweep of a few black stitches
through torn flesh and a lingering ache milled into you
with my first long wail.
For months, you paced dusty hardwoods
flanked by demons, tried to nestle me
against parched breasts, until, unable
to stave off the shrieking, you took refuge
in the cradling of a noose.
Suspended there, you finally loosed our grip.
As a teen I brought strangers here,
took them in as if the feel of them inside of me
were remedy. But now I come alone,
to listen to cicadas sing, light candles inside
dented coffee cans, watch tiny flames thrash tin,
and try to knit your withered roots into my own.
originally published in Karamu
Words that white girls shouldn’t say
There are words that white girls just shouldn’t say,
is how my daughter responds
when I ask how to use the term
my shorty in a sentence.
Gathering her thin arms, she shapes wrists
and elbows into a shield across her chest.
Only days into her thirteenth year,
this child, a fusion of
and Killarney, Kenya
has already honed her tongue into a lancet
and set out to excise me.
She recedes into the passenger’s seat,
turns her face toward the window, leaving me to cradle
dope, trife and downlow, awkwardly below my tongue.
I roll vowels into the soft flesh of my cheek,
stew consonants in spittle while I assemble
the courage to prod them loose,
to let them stumble through my lips.
I have heard words like bank, holla, and trippin’
slip gracefully over her glossy lips, make their way
through phone lines to the ears of girls equally graceful
in their diction. Like them
she ropes coarse curls tightly to her scalp,
weaves in extra hair she buys in stores
that do not stock products for “my kind of hair.”
Braids sweep the tawny neck she’s swaying
to the rhythm of a song whose refrain assaults me
with Boostas, hoes- still other words
that white girls cannot say.
I’d hoped to wield fo shizzle, word and tru
like a chisel to chip away her wall,
but her slang screams for segregation,
leaves me gripping the wheel
With frail white fingers.
originally published in Iconoclast