Visitation in Carolina
I smell his mother on him, the milk
coming down. She chooses to appear this way,
pregnant, dizzy, certain of his name.
We have yet to be naked together, to shed
clothes or tears or human speech, so his mother
comes, a dress over him, a caul. Her dark
hair is a lampshade; the light inscribes
a moon at her feet. Each man who has ever
been inside you, she says, was first inside
his mother. Then she bears her breasts
like a young boy might: without shame, pride,
or sentiment, like a collarbone or a faded scar.
She chooses to remain this way: half-dressed,
drenched in radiance—as pregnant women
often are—hair thick with the son whose name
I find myself repeating. Then she asks me
to read to her, and though there’s light, it’s not
enough to read by. She is the light there is.
Morning, I say. She smiles faintly. By then
it will be too late. He resembles a dolphin sounding
as she places my hand under hers. He circles
my nipple with his tongue—she is flickering
now, exhausted. Helplessly, my eyes
flutter close. I try my best to watch her go.
Like an organ coiled
deep inside or a lasso
of lightning and high
noon, the rattlesnake
traveled the length
of my spine, sunning itself
inside me. Then death—some
call it god—drew a diamond
on the snake’s back,
and marked my chest
with feeling. How godly
the two of us were, shaking
what was hollow.
the front of my blouse.
I felt venom
rise in my ears. I heard
the snake molting,
turning my skin bronze
and flawless. This is how
I became a woman,
across my back,
dust glittering my tongue,
the snake’s tail whirring.
Self-Portrait with Branches of Pine
Here I am, holding one more
mirror. This time smoke, winding
like a river. I close my eyes,
not because the smoke stings—it
does—but because it’s a way
to examine myself, like looking
at your face in a river certain it is not
your face. The smoke combs
like a mother through my hair
or like searching the shoreline
for shells unbroken. I sing to myself
and the smoke drags my voice on its back
just as the breeze heaves it.
Here, in my half-singing,
I forget how to slow drag
and watch the pine trees creak
and sway. Here, I am
my own twin. I rest my cheek
against my cheek; I barely move at all.
Self-Portrait with Afro, Fall 1970
Sister Mary Joseph taught us to respond in unison: an outward sign
of an inward grace. Blue jays loosen the plaits in my hair, damp
from last night’s shower. Angela is underground, changing locations
in the middle of the night. My hair is growing, growing. Scars and marks:
Small scars on both knees. Eyes: Brown. Hair: Black. Mine glows
from the center of my chest, like Jesus’s, except it isn’t a heart, it’s a fist
the size of a heart. I love the fear my afro strikes in some. There are
WANTED posters everywhere: in the post office, at the supermarket.
My brother likes to tell the story of me as a girl, towel-wrapped,
tossing my “hair” from side to side. Flaunting my sadness
unwittingly. Grace is a fist inside me. I’m sometimes mistaken
for the sister I don’t have. Morning light picks through my hair
like a wide tooth comb. Before I am beautiful I'm in the hairdresser’s chair,
perched atop two phone books, holding my ear. My reflection
in the bathroom mirror is a landscape painting. Oil on glass. Fall,
New York City, 1970. My face the night Angela runs through.