BY KWAME DAWES
I saw how they trimmed you down,
called you Rosie, like a pet dog,
and you smiled and called the boy
same age as me, Mister, like you calling
love. How you grabbed him up from the grass
when fire ants took at us in the yard,
and you made your face like it was
your own feet aflame with sting;
and you bawled me down for being such a fool
for not knowing no better than to take the boy
out into the yard like that, telling me
to go get my legs all washed off
stead of standing there with my eyes all wet
like a fool or something worse.
Saw how you laid him down
and sung your song oiling your palms
soothing him like a baby
his eyes drinking you in.
You complain of the arthritis in your legs
when the rain gathers over the swamp
and I drive through the fog to find you
and fill my hands with sharp Bengay
and I love those legs, mother, love
those veins, green on your tender yellow skin,
with songs you never sang for me, Mama,
with tender I never felt from you.
I still count them, feeling them like ghost
limbs; there is a place in my collection of years,
remembering them is a way to remember
to count the pressure pills,
the heart pills, the blood pills,
the tyranny of pills.
I count those who died before they woke,
those I cradled, caressed, cocooned to live,
hoping beyond the weakness of their cries.
They died too, leaving us with tough questions
for God Almighty. Old Black folk have buried
so many babies in the bush behind the cotton
groves, with the naked form of cotton bales,
standing like sentinel crucifixes
against the stale blue of summer skies.
And mother gathers her body and the tears,
and builds new fires, cooks new meals,
readies her womb to replenish
its rooted self to make more brothers, sisters
like second nature. She carries her moaning
like second skin, a way to count the days.
My mother bore nine children,
we chant this as a litany of her strength,
three did not see their second year.
She did not live to see the second year
of her wash-belly, wash-soul, wash-body,
the thin film of her drying birth waters,
scraped off with a rough cloth
as they laid her out to rest.
Sometimes I feel
like a motherless child
a long way from home
a long way from home
Not too old to feel the bile,
that back-breaking anger,
that feeling of death in my heart.
Not too old to turn on their smiles,
transparent thin things,
wanting to raise an open palm; to strike.
Not too old to watch an ancient one of them
lament the encasing of her man,
the jutting-bellied cracker, and smile
Not too old to count their grave falling
like notches of God's blessing, to say,
"Shit, I outlived you, I outlived you."
Not too old to still my tongue,
to hum a blue gospel, while my soul
wails that old cry of motherlessness.
Not too old to dream of blood,
the taste of iron on my lips,
the swell of power in my breast.
Not too old to hear the nightriders,
to face the starched sheets of this South,
with trembling, with the heart of a child.
Not too old, not too old,
not too old, not too old.
Kwame Dawes grew up in Ghana, West Africa (where he was born), England and Jamaica,
and was educated at the University of the West Indies and the University of Brunswick. He joined the
English faculty at the University of South Carolina this year after spending four years at USC
Sumter, where he served as chair of the Division of Arts and Letters. Three books of his
poems were published in 1994 and 1995: the award-winning Progeny of Air (Forward
Poetry Prize), Resisting the Animal, and Prophets.
This month Peepal Tree Books of Leeds, England, will bring out his two latest books, Jacko Jacobus and Requiem. The three poems appearing here are part of a new series featuring South Carolina settings: "Wisteria: Twilight Poems from the Swamp Country."