I. Looking at you was the hardest thing. Taking off my clothes While you stayed dressed, II. Nothing. III. My body a knife, my shoulder Its blade, I cut a path before me. Or sometimes I’m an apprentice ghost Unsure in the art of haunting; No one sees me as I pass. IV. No one sees me as I pass Though someone is always looking, Translating texts of skin and eyes As: our lives are whole without her. V. The intention of the taker doesn’t matter; Shame lies only in not being had, Pain in too much having. VI. If you weren’t older by twenty years, Superior in race, middle-class By marriage and sighted, You couldn’t whisper strip And then refuse to do the same. We get away with what we can, And this poet gives what she gives. VII. Historically, it was a woman’s fate, a slave’s: Submission to a gaze s/he can’t return. VIII. I am not you; that’s you and not me. From a distance the boundaries stay clear, And fear lies coiled and sleeping in its place. IX. Up close, I look at you, give you My body without its mask of blindness, Allow you to see me, my eyes As they work at seeing you. And not because, as I have said, I loved you more, or am most good, Just well-rehearsed as vulnerable.
Invisible Woman, Dancing
All Hallows Eve, Sweet Briar College, 2003
I came as a ghost to the party, no costume required, I only had to wear the brilliant skin, the ruinous eyes, the body poised in transit, unwriting the myth of sex. I came as a ghost to the party, though we pretended not to notice a palpable hovering in the interstices of conversations, a presence so insubstantial eyes passed through it, hands reached through air, bodies jostled on the dance floor and never felt a thing. Still, some there were haunted, drawn away from the company, its clenched knots of desperate clever banter, to contemplate the thinnest air as if, despite themselves, they heard and heeded a ghostly tongue; their bodies swayed in answer. Staring into that void they glimpsed themselves, turned back, shuddering, to the masquerade. I came as a ghost to the party against my better judgment at the persistent, earnest urging of my friends, as if a ghost had friends when they hoist the flag of whiteness and huddle there under purity and privilege, surrender—fatal— the furious, frailer, darker parts of themselves. Recently they had rallied to kiss the ass of a black man who had accomplished admirable things—though most there had not read them or only read a story, as pleasantly exotic and sweetly soothing as those wonderful spirituals about wading in the water and summertime. So extravagant was their ardor that I, a member of his tribe, could not get near him or have one word. Still, I know he saw me, sitting there, tense, alone, before his lecture, unmoored and vanishing in the cocktail Hell before his dinner— did not only see, but recognized a kindred ache. The first and second and third rule of thumb, the commentator said, is do not scare the white people. And so we stand apart, raise no specters of over-educated house niggers breeding insurrections, mustering ghost armies of strangers, lepers, freaks, the wretched of the earth, furious, innumerable and not afraid to die. I came as a ghost to the party. you didn’t wear a costume, someone said. I came as an activist, I replied, modeling my black ACLU t-shirt, Lady Liberty emblazoned down my front, at my back, a litany of rights. I might have said the costume’s in the eye. You will weave for me a shroud and I will walk among you like a ghost, mask of the red death, memento mori. Blind with pride and rage (I will ask no one for help), I quit the place, leave the lake behind, the band’s god-awful din, the strafing voices—the rent in the world’s fabric miraculously healed by my going. The dark deserted road is unfamiliar, its grade, its curves, the woods casting shadows from either side, but any path is right that leads away. I lose my way, keep going, going, deeper into the maze, finally turn back. Returned, the band’s on break; They’ve put a mix tape in. I dance like one possessed, furious grace. When strangers, not of this place, say a quick goodnight, I run after, take me with you, I say. A solid hand upon my solid knee, warm hands returning the pressure of my warm hand— two women rescue me, deliver me— ghost in the machine once more human girl—home with promises of brunch and company they will or will not keep. No matter. I lock the door and slide the chain, rest back against the frame, breathing relief. May they all die horribly in a boathouse fire. The malediction takes me by surprise. I say it once again with clear intent: May they all die horribly in a boathouse fire. These words be kerosene, dry wood, locked doors, a match.