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Michelle Courtney Berry

Years: 1997,1998, 1999


Michelle Courtney Berry, the second Poet Laureate of Tompkins County, has appeared on "Good Morning America" and was elected delegate for Mr. Barack Obama in her Congressional District by over 16,000 votes. A former City Councilwoman and Alternate Acting Mayor for the City of Ithaca, she teaches at Ithaca College and Cornell University. She has opened in poetry and song for His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou & Howard Zinn. Michelle holds a dual BA in English, Literature and Rhetoric and Political Science from Binghamton University's Harpur College, where she minored in Public Affairs Communication, was Scripps-Howard Fellow and the Commencement Speaker. She received her Master's Degree in Communication from Cornell, where she was also a fellow and researcher. Michelle has held summer scholarships at both Vassar College and Georgetown University (The Institute on Political Journalism). A Cave Canem Fellow from 1997-99, she went on to attend The Hurston-Wright Writers Conference in Moraga, California (short story and fiction); The Breadloaf Writers' Conference (poetry); and most recently, she was the recipient of the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation grant from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown (2009). Michelle has also received funding for a series of coffeehouse poems from Poets & Writers and a grant for fiction from the Community Arts Partnership (CAP). Her poetry has appeared in the anthologies: Gathering Ground: a reader celebrating Cave Canem's first decade (University of Michigan Press, 2006), Gifts from Our Grandmothers (Crown/Random House, 2002), Cave Canem Poetry Anthology IV (Black Classic Press, 1999); and in notable journals and magazines such as:  nocturnes:  re(view) of the literary arts, Oxford American , Paterson Literary Review and Obsidian. She is proud to be the first poet published by Horticulture. Michelle resides in the Fingerlakes Region of New York with her family.






Right before my mother burned the house down,

she tended the roses. Each day that summer,

she came wearing the  pale yellow dress, floppy hat, and holding the red tool box.

If I was in the yard, she’d yell: Miranda, me voy para la pega, which was a big joke between us,

because she was pretending to leave for an office in Havana.

We were the work—the house, the loud children, the inscrutable father. The pleasure was in the roses.

In the year Castro said, after fifteen years of Revolution,

women’s rights are an arena in which we are still behind,”

my mother’s flowers bloomed.

Everywhere the pink Monticello shrub roses shed their frosty skins.  In the garden, zinc-colored J.F.K. tea roses chortled.

On the patio, geranium red Floribunda roses spat through cracks.  Running the trellis of the house, the scarlet Altissimo climbed.  In the garden, my mother would push the trowel deep, deep into the ground around the bushes,

elbow-high gloves gargantuan on the slender arms,

head tilted like a sunflower, legs spread,

and the sharp sucking against the teeth—

the hiss when she forgot the danger of roses.




On the last day of the killings, the fields burned.

All around, the terror of chickens, some headless and running, others on the metal tables—

where the hardest part of all—

much harder than the chopping of heads—(which was really quite routine), was the pulling of wing feathers and hairs from the anus.

The easiest part? Chopping the oil gland out, halving the chicken and clunking the heart and lungs into the silver bowl.



The morning it happened, the day, up on hind legs

the sun, hot as a whip, clouds rolling in, paella burning the stove. All the roses were cut down.

Hundreds and still hundreds of flaming heads jutted the red wheelbarrows

And my mother, standing in front of the house, her hands turning clothespins over and over, her face blank.

In the punishing heat, the blush-stained blossoms dripped.

The sky pulled back, everything, black.