--New Orleans, November 1910 Four weeks have passed since I left, and still I must write to you of no work. I've worn down the soles and walked through the tightness of my new shoes calling upon the merchants, their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking my plain English and good writing would secure for me some modest position Though I dress each day in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves you crocheted--no one needs a girl. How flat the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins. I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet industry, to mask the desperation that tightens my throat. I sit watching-- though I pretend not to notice--the dark maids ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown as your dear face, they'd know I'm not quite what I pretend to be. I walk these streets a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine, a negress again. There are enough things here to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots and irons of the laundresses call to me. I thought not to do the work I once did, back bending and domestic; my schooling a gift--even those half days at picking time, listening to Miss J--. How I'd come to know words, the recitations I practiced to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field, I repeated whole sections I'd learned by heart, spelling each word in my head to make a picture I could see, as well as a weight I could feel in my mouth. So now, even as I write this and think of you at home, Goodbye is the waving map of your palm, is a stone on my tongue.
Do not hang your head or clench your fists
when even your friend, after hearing the story,
says: My mother would never put up with that.
Fight the urge to rattle off statistics: that,
more often, a woman who chooses to leave
is then murdered. The hundredth time
your father says, But she hated violence,
why would she marry a guy like that?—
don’t waste your breath explaining, again,
how abusers wait, are patient, that they
don’t beat you on the first date, sometimes
not even the first few years of a marriage.
Keep an impassive face whenever you hear
Stand by Your Man, and let go your rage
when you recall those words were advice
given your mother. Try to forget the first
trial, before she was dead, when the charge
was only attempted murder; don’t belabor
the thinking or the sentence that allowed
her ex-husband’s release a year later, or
the juror who said, It’s a domestic issue—
they should work it out themselves. Just
breathe when, after you read your poems
about grief, a woman asks: Do you think
your mother was weak for men? Learn
to ignore subtext. Imagine a thought-
cloud above your head, dark and heavy
with the words you cannot say; let silence
rain down. Remember you were told
by your famous professor, that you should
write about something else, unburden
yourself of the death of your mother and
just pour your heart out in the poems.
Ask yourself what’s in your heart, that
reliquary—blood locket and seed-bed—and
contend with what it means, the folk-saying
you learned from a Korean poet in Seoul:
that one does not bury the mother’s body
in the ground but in the chest, or—like you—
you carry her corpse on your back.