Rachel Nelson is a Cave Canem graduate fellow and who received her MFA from University of Michigan. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlas Review, Callaloo, Hartskill Review, Little Patuxent Review, Muzzle Magazine, pluck!, Smartish Pace, and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (Un. Georgia Press, 2007). She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she’s facilitated a number of workshops in Michigan prisons.
You want to be the sort of woman
who steps out of her boots
and slides her leg into the dark water without stutter.
You want your own beauty
boxed and delivered,
a thing you have to hold to believe.
The bodies of women
unfold from behind their shirts,
clothes nodding over the limbs of trees.
You want to lean into the lake of melted snow,
its dark surface marbled rosy.
You think this is beauty: to glide
when the ground is sharp
Here is April cracked open for you:
The shivering and shrieking women call,
voices like beautiful fishing line unspooling.
You tell me you’re plainly yourself,
no artifice or costume, as you slide
your glasses into the sole of a shoe.
How could you use anything more
as a disguise? Not unfolded yet, you
want to be made of feathers,
like a duck, dark and slick.
Published by Little Patuxent Review
After Kara Walker’s Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tweenthe Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994)
Mothers, when you crowd together
I cannot hear you – you sound like waves.
Mothers, I have blood and water too.
I lift like rain misting off the road.
One mother says the water gathers at her thighs,
its fists bunched, and tells her who it eats
and who she’s eaten. There is no difference
between dry land and water but the story.
Mothers, there are so many of you
to enter the room of the body.
Who roots a man’s head to the ground
with her own head? Who gathers the flock
of her legs to lift herself up to a kiss?
Mothers, don’t leave me
in the grasses. My feet grow other feet.
My tongue cannot do what they ask.
One mother is rounded, a hulk, unhatched,
lifting another with thready arms.
One mother’s skin keeps the gray of the ocean inside.
Mothers, your feet will open
with so many stories – there are more shells
on the bottom in some places than others.
Each hilltop is an island.
Mothers, you will have to find a way
even if you don’t want to fly.
Which one of you reached the tree,
arm draped in moss and clothing?
Mothers, they’ll lift us and our brooms too
so they cannot see our feet on the ground.
They’ll bite us to taste the salt.
Published by pinwheel
After Kara Walker’s Freedom: A fable (1997)
Perhaps she would begin with the sea
(where did it go?), or the sweet
dim reprieve from the sun, or the rain
she cannot seem to move from beneath.
Or perhaps she would not want to say.
Her breast bare, she is instead
protecting her teeth: lips set,
the words moving below them like bees in a hive.
One hand is still waiting for the seed
of the other hand to stem.
Her body has not yet grown the boat.
When I close the book
her heel will lift and the shade tree
will close in quick winter.
The spine will just avoid breaking her in half.
Here is the fable:
the leg that stopped running
shades her face from the sun.
It has found no other escape but bark.
On the land she has built for her herself
she is safest in full sight. Blooming
everything usable from her own body.
The flower in the hand she has left is for us.
Published by Huizache