Thirty seconds into the barbecue,
my Cleveland cousins
have everyone speaking
and dropped consonants,
whoops and caws.
It's more osmosis than magic,
a sliding thrall back to a time
when working the tire factories
meant entire neighborhoods coming
up from Georgia or Tennessee,
accents helplessly intact—
while their children, inflections flattened
to match the field they thought
they were playing on, knew
without asking when it was safe
to roll out a drawl… just as
it's understood “potluck” means
resurrecting the food
we've abandoned along the way
for the sake of sleeker thighs.
I look over the yard to the porch
with its battalion of aunts,
the wavering ranks of uncles
at the grill; everywhere else
hordes of progeny are swirling
and my cousins yakking on
as if they were waist-deep in quicksand
but like the books recommend aren’t moving
until someone hauls them free—
Who are all these children?
Who had them, and with whom?
Through the general coffee tones
the shamed genetics cut a creamy swath.
Cherokee’s burnt umber transposed
onto generous lips, a glance flares gray
above the crushed nose we label
Anonymous African: It's all here,
the beautiful geometry of Mendel's peas
and their grim logic—
and though we remain
clearly divided on the merits
of okra, there’s still time
to demolish the cheese grits
and tear into slow-cooked ribs
so tender, we agree they’re worth
the extra pound or two
our menfolk swear will always
bring them home. Pity
the poor soul who lives
a life without butter—
those pinched knees
and tennis shoulders
and hatchety smiles!
Copyright © 2007 by Rita Dove. Originally published in Callaloo. Used with the permission of the poet.