A Louder Thing
for Kenneka Jenkins and her mother
What is it about my mother’s face, a bright burn
when I think back, her teeth, her immaculate teeth
that I seldom saw or knew, her hair like braided
black liquorice. I am thinking of my mother’s face,
because she is like the mother in the news whose
daughter was found dead, frozen inside a hotel freezer.
My mother is this mourning mother who begged
the staff to search for her daughter, but was denied.
Black mothers are often seen pleading for their children,
shown stern and wailing, held back somehow by police
or caution tape—
a black mother just wants to see her baby’s body.
a black mother just wants to cover her baby’s body
with a sheet on the street. A black mother
leaves the coffin open for all the world to see,
and my mother is no different. She is worried
about seeing the last minutes of me: pre-ghost,
stumbling alone through empty hotel hallways
failing to find balance, searching for a friend,
a center, anyone, to help me home. Yes.
I’ve gotten into a van with strangers.
I’ve taken drugs with people that did not care
how hard or fast I smoked or blew.
But what did I know of Hayden? What did I know
of that poem besides my mother’s hands, her fist,
her prayers and premonitions? What did I know
of her disembodied voice hovering over the seams
of my life like the vatic song the whip-poor-will
makes when it can sense a soul dispersing?
Still. My mother wants to know where I am,
who I am with, and when will I land.
I get frustrated by her insistence on my safety
and survival. What a shame I am. I’m sorry, mom.
Some say Black love is different. Once,
I asked my mother why she always yelled
at me when I was little. She said I never listened
to her when she spoke to me in hushed tones
like a white mother would, meaning soft volume
is a privilege. Yeah, that’s right. I am using a stereotype
to say a louder thing. I am saying my mother
was screaming when she lost me in the mall once.
I keep hearing that voice everywhere I go.
I follow my name. The music of her rage sustains me.
Copyright © 2019 by Tiana Clark. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 25, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets. An excerpt from this poem originally appeared in an essay for Oxford American.
About this Poem
“I was haunted by the disturbing details of Kenneka Jenkins’ mysterious death at a Chicago hotel in 2017. I was saddened—but not surprised—to hear how her mother fought and begged the staff to find her missing daughter. Teresa Martin’s resolve reminded me of the gritty persistence from my own mother as well as Michael Brown’s and Emmett Till’s mothers. D. A. Powell writes, ‘the elegy originates in an age-old desire: to bring the beloved back from obscurity.’ A poem can’t bring anyone back from the dead, but in my attempted lament I wanted to investigate the contours of black mother love, a loud, all-caps-love that shreds the shroud of death, embodying the perpetual Mrs. Sallie Smith frantically searching for her little girl in the labyrinthine apartment building from ‘In the Mecca’ by Gwendolyn Brooks, repeating: ‘WHERE PEPITA BE?’”
Tiana Clark is the author of I Can't Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018).
Date Published: 2019-03-25
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/louder-thing