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Teri Ellen Cross Davis

Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of Haint (Gival Press, 2016), winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is a Cave Canem fellow and works as the poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. She lives in Maryland.

By This Poet

4

Knuckle Head

My son’s head is a fist
rapping against the door of the world.
For now, it’s dressers, kitchen islands,

dining room tables that coax his clumsy, creating
small molehills of hurt breaching
the surface. The ice pack,

a cold kiss to lessen the blow equals
a frigid intrusion, a boy cannot be a boy
with all this mothering getting in the way.

Sometimes the floor plays accomplice
snagging an ankle, elbow, top lip to swell.
Other times it’s a tantrum, when he spills his limbs

onto the hardwood, frenzied then limp with anger,
tongue clotted with frustration,
a splay of 2 year-old emotion voiced in one winding wail.

My son cannot continue this path.
Black boys can’t lose control at 21, 30, even 45.
They don’t get do-overs.
So I let him flail about now,
let him run headfirst into the wall
learn how unyielding perceptions can be.

Bear the bruising now,
before he grows, enters a world
too eager to spill his blood, too blind to how red it is.

Letdown

The books say that milk letdown
feels like pins and needles
but when you’re pumping at work
it’s more like lungs constricting
under the crush of chlorinated water.
You know, god willing, when she’s 16 or 25
you’ll never be this essential again.
So remember this smothering need now,
the engorged breasts, the suction, the release.
Know the ache swelling and flowing from you,
is caused by your hands cradling plastic bottles,
that your warm, twisting baby is elsewhere,
away from you. Know the sadness will threaten
to sweep you under, each time you take out the pump
and you can’t swim away from it. You must do this for her.
You must stay, you must drown.

Thank You Jesus

When the blue and red sirens pass you,
when the school calls because your child
beat the exam and not a classmate,
when the smart phone drops but does not crack,
the rush escaping your mouth betrays your upbringing:
thank you Jesus—a balm over the wound.
When the mammogram finds only density,
when the playground tumble results
in a bruise, not a broken bone,
like steam from a hot tea kettle
thank you Jesus—and the pent-up fear
vents upward, out. Maybe it’s a hand
over breast, supplication learned deeper
than flesh as if one could shush the soul,
the fluttering heartbeat with three words.
Maybe it’s not so dire—an almost trip on the sidewalk,
the accumulated sales total showing savings upon savings,
maybe it’s as small as an empty seat on the Metro
or maybe thank you Jesus—becomes the refrain
every time your husband pulls into the driveway,
alive and whole, and no one has mistaken him
for all the black, scary things. You mutter it,
helpless to stop yourself from the invocation
of a grandmother who gave you your first bible,
you say it because your mother, even knowing
your doubt as a vested commodity, still urges prayer.
You learned early to cast the net—thank you Jesus
and it’s a sweet needle that gathers the fraying thread,
hemming security in steady stitches. From birth
you’ve heard this language; as an adult
you’ve seen religion used nakedly as ambition yet
this sacrifice of praise, still slips past your lips,
this lyrical martyr of your dying faith.