On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba

Pauline Opango Onosamba Lumumba 1937–2014


When it is finally ours...this beautiful
and terrible thing...

—“Frederick Douglass” by Robert Hayden


we like to imagine that liberation comes in the natural order of things
carried on such fabled winds of change that
even in the heat of assassination
slaughter and awesome dying for right of millions, or
else some solitary
beautifully ordinary brother
cannot be missed or misconstrued

but there are so many added costs and taxes
as to trip us up quite easily
in all the clamor and bravura of this liberation business.
and then, of course,
the grief-stricken bared breasts of pauline lumumba—

no half-century long enough to bury
the blank and heavy forward-propelled pace
widow flanked on two sides by men
aching to protect her and she
already worlds beyond—

who among us looks on those breasts
and is not bowed?


beloved companion the letter begins
beloved companion

we are not alone
and history will one day have its say

how does one look into the frank, unstoried eyes of one’s child and say
we are not alone?

how does one address the letter that reads
whether i am free or in prison alive or already in death’s maw?
to what khakied and accursed postal worker falls the task of bearing
so hard and heavy final and unbearably dear a letter?

in what corner of
one’s dank and filthy cell is it written?
where do the flower petals of one’s springtime dress fall away to on receiving it?
and what is the weight of those hands, slim-fingered and otherwise empty
full now of driest air
coming slowly slowly
from neighboring forest and savanna?
when does the gnawing of marrow begin to tell
the ages-old story
of the death even of hope
when after everything
after all
we are not alone?

month of the wolf
month of solemnities and annunciations
as good a beginning as any
january then surely was seasonable enough for death by torture by beating by
shooting by three adept and clearly necessary firing squads for three men already half-dead
fully bloodied from head to heels
orifices swollen to proud flesh ripe-red for the plucking
one at a time in a row from that tree
buried unburied dismembered doused with acid how
how many ways to kill
men whose ideals
clearly were that much more costly than

seasonable for mourning-time—
assassinating martyr-making widowmaking time of year

they liked in those brief months
they liked to report on your loveliness, didn’t they?
european press couldn’t get enough of you—
your slight waist and native grace
the pretty way you held the pretty child
how you held to the arm of the young hero-husband
so clearly perfectly patently marked both for victory and for early death
eyes wide with all the world could then imagine of vicious and
reverberating grief
pretty young wife and mother become symbol become widow
to generation and to continents history and biographers—
nothing said of the shambled life from center to border
flight into egypt beyond and back again
death-startled children in tow.

what will they write in a single decade’s time of how
you yourself chose the warm tenth-month of
sacrifices and of minor feasts, lesser saints
fewer and requisite number of martyred virgins
told no one of your journey—
december and death in your own bed —
asleep alone as ever you were
leaving now fully alone continents grieving
worlds humbled
contemplating now and forever, again
bared grief-flattened breasts
as earth
as at the inevitable and deliberate coming
of end times
of hope.


Copyright © 2018 by Brenda Marie Osbey. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 9, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“I wrote this poem in response to the famous photo of Pauline Lumumba walking through the streets of Leopoldville following the January 1961 assassination of her husband. Patrice Lumumba had been the first prime minister of the newly independent Republic of Congo. This work interrogates the early euphoria of African nations achieving independence from colonial rule after decades of resistance, balanced against the personal costs of such activism. Situated at the juncture of public mourning and private grief, the poem examines Pauline Lumumba’s most powerful statement: her bare-breasted walk through the streets in mourning for and in protest against the murder of her husband. Juxtaposed alongside her refusal to be made invisible in the face of rank injustice is the image of her own quiet death.”
—Brenda Marie Osbey