Keita, M. NzadiWebsite
M. Nzadi Keita, a 2017 Pew Fellow in poetry, is a first-generation urban northerner. The Philly-born writer also works as an editor, scholar and teacher. Her most recent book, Brief Evidence of Heaven: Poems from the life of Anna Murray Douglass (Whirlwind Press), was a finalist for the 2015 Phillis Wheatley Poetry Prize from the Quarterly Black Book Review. Through persona poems, Keita imagines how the first wife of Frederick Douglass — free-born and illiterate — saw the world as an independent woman, mother, and abolitionist in her own right. Some poems portray the voices of others within Douglass’s world, including her children, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman.
Keita’s poems have appeared in literary journals such as nocturnes, Crab Orchard and Poet Lore. Anthologies featuring her work include Peace Is A Haiku Song, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Grants and fellowships from the Penna. Council on the Arts, the Leeway Foundation, Yaddo and the Fine Arts Work Center have supported her creative adventures. Keita has worked as a consultant for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, and other organizations. She is an associate professor of English and co-coordinator of the African-American/Africana Studies Program at Ursinus College.
Mrs. Douglass Takes Tea At the Anti-Slavery Society
Lips alone make so much to study.
Let your eyes take in some quiet.
Wait until a shoulder turns. Look again.
Those lips steal the story,
from twig to branch to ash.
Add the eyes, the hands, the shoulders,
and you’ve got a book: the cover, the marks, and all the pages.
Every sound my heart holds back
to sit and handle in the dark starts with lips.
Sour fruit that I’ve seen shrivel
and come back to life. Cleaver. Torch.
Broken shell of an egg,
fish scale, soup spoon.
The longer you look, the more comes true.
Where would I
be without your appearance
at a window framed by ice,
dressing all surfaces?
Every message you bring sparks
one urgent inch. Your certainty
on landing, so I’ll see the splayed
feet; the songless snatch
of your head. Posture
happenstance, but you strive
to hide that fact. Sidling
to this window, you aim
a splash of mirth–
convivial– at me. At you–
capable of flying to Florida,
or capable, at least, of harboring
such dreams in your too-short
wings. My Guide.
God. Grace, made
in a puff of bones.
From Driving, a manuscript-in-progress. Reprinted from Poetry Ink: 2018 Anthology, Moonstone Press.
My mother washed your weekly pile of panties
while pee tested her own body’s drawstring
with a faint touch, then a nudge. She wanted
to get done, to skip the field. She wanted
to play. After she hung your drawers up
by the scant silk rim, made to catch your sweat,
she dropped her head into a quiet she could
own. This girl. Whom you called “Your Girl” or
“Your Day Girl” depending on the company–when
of course, she never was. Simply My Mother,
before Marriage-and -Children Camp. You having
a fancy moment, her having a nickel. Nobody looking
with a tilted, preordained lens at a ten-year-old female,
Negro, counting a times table. Wrapping a wish
like a grace note, like a string around her thumb,
a wish for wings. My mother squatted on the way home
after her portion of ‘yes, ma’am.’ Before having to make
rules and beds and trace the lines. She yanked
her own grayish cotton drawers aside to water a slope
of pine needles, far from your gaze. Far
from the shade of your house.
From Driving, a manuscript-in-progress. Reprinted from Poet Lore, Fall/Winter 2013.
Brief Evidence of Heaven: Poems from the life of Anna Murray Douglass (Whirlwind Press, 2014)
2017 Pew Fellow in poetry
finalist, 2015 Phillis Wheatley Poetry Prize