I ask a student how I can help her. Nothing is on her paper.
It’s been that way for thirty-five minutes. She has a headache.
She asks to leave early. Maybe I asked the wrong question.
I’ve always been dumb with questions. When I hurt,
I too have a hard time accepting advice or gentleness.
I owe for an education that hurt, and collectors call my mama’s house.
I do nothing about my unpaid bills as if that will help.
I do nothing about the mold on my ceiling, and it spreads.
I do nothing about the cat’s litter box, and she pisses on my new bath mat.
Nothing isn’t an absence. Silence isn’t nothing. I told a woman I loved her,
and she never talked to me again. I told my mama a man hurt me,
and her hard silence told me to keep my story to myself.
Nothing is full of something, a mass that grows where you cut at it.
I’ve lost three aunts when white doctors told them the thing they felt
was nothing. My aunt said nothing when it clawed at her breathing.
I sat in a room while it killed her. I am afraid when nothing keeps me
in bed for days. I imagine what my beautiful aunts are becoming
underground, and I cry for them in my sleep where no one can see.
Nothing is in my bedroom, but I smell my aunt’s perfume
and wake to my name called from nowhere. I never looked
into a sky and said it was empty. Maybe that’s why I imagine a god
up there to fill what seems unimaginable. Some days, I want to live
inside the words more than my own black body.
When the white man shoves me so that he can get on the bus first,
when he says I am nothing but fits it inside a word, and no one stops him,
I wear a bruise in the morning where he touched me before I was born.
My mama’s shame spreads inside me. I’ve heard her say
there was nothing in a grocery store she could afford. I’ve heard her tell
the landlord she had nothing to her name. There was nothing I could do
for the young black woman that disappeared on her way to campus.
They found her purse and her phone, but nothing led them to her.
Nobody was there to hold Renisha McBride’s hand
when she was scared of dying. I worry poems are nothing against it.
My mama said that if I became a poet or a teacher, I’d make nothing, but
I’ve thrown words like rocks and hit something in a room when I aimed
for a window. One student says when he writes, it feels
like nothing can stop him, and his laughter unlocks a door. He invites me
into his living.
Copyright © 2020 by Krysten Hill. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 7, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
About this Poem
“Just as poems are spaces for discovery, for me, poems have also been spaces to document what I am unlearning. I thought a lot about poet and activist Audre Lorde when I was writing this. This poem addresses that there are whole histories and complicated truths in the things that I swallow daily for the comfort of others. Silence is its own kind of hell. Inaction can be its own harmful protection. As a black woman, there are ways I’ve been taught, directly or indirectly, to mask my feelings into a response like ‘It’s nothing’ when, in fact, everything is wrong. Something is very much on fire. When truths come to surface, they are their own kind of ugly-beautiful. They are not ‘nothing.’ There is something very much living inside of them. They are necessary.”
Date Published: 2020-07-07
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/nothing