Bear Witness

   after Carrie Mae Weems’s Roaming series

Before I knew
how to fill my onyx body
with slick measures,

dip every curve
in my skin with dark sway,
I needed a picture.

Before me stood
a long black dress I called Woman—
you stand opaque

with your back to me,
a statue of witness,
the door of Yes—

I can Return
to the monument
of your silhouette

to find my longest muscle.
We both stare down
the ocean to stillness.

O, Carrie—
what are you trying
to tell me here?

I’ve been standing by water 
my whole damn life
trying to get saved.

Conversation with Phillis Wheatley #2

Tell me about your baptism she asked.

I rose out of the water, a caught fish—slippery,
gaping for breath, brand new with righteousness.

I walked down to the frothing whirlpool,
Pastor Lonnie—a white man in a white robe,

extended his hands and helped me down the steps.
The congregation watched as I answered his questions:

Yes. Yes. Yes. Jacuzzi-warm water gurgled and spun
as his white robe spread around my little circumference,

holy creamer. He put his hand on my nose, pinched
my breath. I did not close my eyes as he buried me

under the water—under the water I heard muffled
shouting, under the water I saw Pastor Lonnie's face

ripple in thirds. He tipped my body back, lifted me up
and out from the wet coffin to the defeaning resound

of clapping and yelling from the church. My hair back
to curls, my face like the face of my birth when I was

cut from my mother—terrified and ready to scream.

Cross/Bite

                                                 I was born into this world sideways.
                                 Doctor said,
                                                 surgery, to break my face
                           set it right again
                                                 as if breaking were simple.
      Wet places my lips have been:
                                                 all the boys I've kissed—
             so many caves I've licked
                                                 saliva & sweat
            holy water on my tongue.
                                                 I grind my teeth at night
wake to white sand in my mouth:
                                                 nocturnal silt, gritty loam.
              My jaws pop when I talk
                                                 but if I had the surgery, went cosmetic?
Oh, the typewriter in my bones—
                                                  yes, I would miss that click/clack the most.

A Louder Thing

         for Kenneka Jenkins and her mother

What is it about my mother’s face, a bright burn
when I think back, her teeth, her immaculate teeth

that I seldom saw or knew, her hair like braided
black liquorice. I am thinking of my mother’s face,

because she is like the mother in the news whose
daughter was found dead, frozen inside a hotel freezer.

My mother is this mourning mother who begged
the staff to search for her daughter, but was denied.

Black mothers are often seen pleading for their children,
shown stern and wailing, held back somehow by police

or caution tape—

a black mother just wants to see her baby’s body.
a black mother just wants to cover her baby’s body

with a sheet on the street. A black mother
leaves the coffin open for all the world to see,

and my mother is no different. She is worried
about seeing the last minutes of me: pre-ghost,

stumbling alone through empty hotel hallways
failing to find balance, searching for a friend,

a center, anyone, to help me home. Yes.
I’ve gotten into a van with strangers.

I’ve taken drugs with people that did not care
how hard or fast I smoked or blew.

But what did I know of Hayden? What did I know
of that poem besides my mother’s hands, her fist,

her prayers and premonitions? What did I know
of her disembodied voice hovering over the seams

of my life like the vatic song the whip-poor-will
makes when it can sense a soul dispersing?

Still. My mother wants to know where I am,
who I am with, and when will I land.

I get frustrated by her insistence on my safety
and survival. What a shame I am. I’m sorry, mom.

Some say Black love is different. Once,
I asked my mother why she always yelled

at me when I was little. She said I never listened
to her when she spoke to me in hushed tones

like a white mother would, meaning soft volume
is a privilege. Yeah, that’s right. I am using a stereotype

to say a louder thing. I am saying my mother
was screaming when she lost me in the mall once.

I keep hearing that voice everywhere I go.
I follow my name. The music of her rage sustains me.