Chorus of the Mothers-Griot

for Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784)

                                [amnesiac wood]

[nostrils of girls]	        [who was bought]	        [uncle’s hand]
[guts on the air]	        [who was sold]		[defeated man]
[history’s charnel]	        [i say] 	                [trader’s silver]

                                [sailing knot to knot]

[naked in the corner]	[door of no return]	[sing the mutiny]
[in the slave house]	[sniff bougainvillea]	[who stands ashamed]
[i say]		 	[ready dawn’s kill]	        [naked in the corner]

                                [jealous sharks]

[i shall]			[who did]		        [i say]
[they did]		        [i’m here]		        [my name]
[who shall]		        [i say]		        [yes here]

                                [on the battlefield] 

[call woman]		[call america]		[call revolution]
[call the brother]	        [call myth]                  [i say] 
[call the auction]	        [call africa]		        [call revolution]

                                [in God’s name]

[is this called]		[is my mother]		[is my kin]
[i say]			[is this called]		[is some land]
[is my mother]		[and what] 		        [is this called]

	after Lucille Clifton

Muse, a Lady Cautioning

for Billie Holiday

There's fairness in changing blood for septet's
guardian rhythm, the horn blossoming
into cadenza. No good pimp's scowl, his
baby's voice ruined sweet for the duration.

Yes, these predictable fifths. O, the blues
is all about slinging those low tales out
the back door (sing: child pried open on that
stained floor). O, Billie hollers way down dirt

roads (sing: woman on the verge of needled
logic). She's aware--yeah, I'm going to
kiss some man's sugared fist tonight. O, this
tableau's muse, a Lady cautioning me: 

Just tough this thing out, girl. Sweat through the jones.
Don't ask for nothing.  Spit your last damned note.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, Great-Niece of Lord Mansfield, and Her Cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, c. 1779 (by unknown artist)

A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies...Lord M...calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her...

        From The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson,
        August 1779

Dido moves quickly—
as from the Latin anime.

Breath or soul.
Beside her, the generations-free kin,

a biscuit figurine in pink.
Dido standing in irony—

the lowest are taller here—
Elizabeth should provide

an unkind contrast: pretty, blond,
pale in uncovered places—

but no.
The painter worships the quickened other.

Dido, his coquette of deep-dish
dimples, his careless, bright love.

Forget history.
She's a teenager.

We know what that means.
Cocky, stupid about reality.

No thought of babies—
feathers in her arms.

She might wave them, clearing
dead mothers from the air—

and surely, she's special—
her uncle dressed her with care,

hid her from triangles and seas
outside this walled garden.

Let her be.

No Dying Mythical Queen
weaving a vivid, troubled skin—

but Dido, full of girlhood,
and Elizabeth reaching

a hand. Behave, cousin,
she begs.

Don't run away from me.

Dido was the great-niece of William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield; as Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, he is responsible for the Somersett ruling (1772), which essentially outlawed slavery in England, though not in the colonies.

Washita Battlefield National Historic Site

                   for Chief Black Kettle & the Cheyenne People
I. 2016            
   that journey
i was tired
not ready for
a long drive
i live here now
my land here now
& the cheyenne
my new duty   
as i travel
i am afraid
carved country
in this part of  
my dark skin  
my kinky hair 
the worries      
the ugly
tales of travel
i am afraid
all this to write
some short history
for peace
at the battlefield
it’s near evening
no one here
to guide
through the bones
i must go alone
on one branch 
a flash 
cloth bundled  
a head  with
no features      
a jump in grass
no further
i should take off
my shoes
where they died
i walk down
the trail
the sounds
the horses
butterflies hop
they intone      
find that place  
where you walk 
this is where   
we wait woman    

II.  1864–68
   that time 

for years                      
the old ones                
an old story                 
an old people  
a whisper         
hope & survive 
don’t be afraid            
just wait                       
the world         
has lasted        
this long          
a legacy           
we rely upon    
lists of treaties 
medicine lodge
black kettle      
a kind man
suffered power
for peace
i grieve this man
i grieve his wife
no words
to justify
in suffering
i place my prayers
in spirit
in a gift
a bullet 
lost in blood    
pray before      
it talks to you   
what a man offered
left behind
children women
beaten by memory
the dawn
custer’s music
the warriors
point to trees
soldiers there  
a battlefield
quickly leave    
the offerings
for your tongue           

III.  1868
   that dawn

i must respect
i must respect
the beginning
the beginning
the dawn
a mourning
a hot sun
of migration
in this place
before claiming
river through trees
& elders
surely know
broken vowels
sand creek
counseling quiet
faith in life
through waiting
then a massacre
black kettle
medicine woman later
stop asking me
to understand
to absolve soldiers
no words
no words
i claim
in testimony
buried inside
a memory
it speaks in books
it chides the truth
calm never lasts
i want peace
calm never lasts
i want peace
i can’t forget
custer’s music
the women
sing to children
do not forget 
a massacre 
tend to stories
find the words