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Last night another woman died
at the hands of a lover boy friend
husband ex take your pick & all
the mouths are silent. Let’s be specific.
We’re trying not to be childish trying
not to invoke the memory of us
girls lined on one side of homeroom
boys on the other play the game
of tit for tat hold inside our little fists
crumbled sheets of paper scribbled with
how many times we’ve had their backs
not because a poem asked us to
but because it came natural. If
a stereotype fits it fits now
we are tired women so worn
from watching brown black & white men
lick their wounds for all lost
in pride & kingdom while women fall
like leaves heavy in autumn there
are not enough hands pressed together
to gather this engine of loss there is
no return no recourse no going back
like when the body shuts itself down
each organ each cell a burning pastime
the flame always making way
for ash. Somewhere sister spirits
circle with song. This is always the season.
As she parted my hair into four, I was a poem
in need of revision, too small for wigs like
she and the sweet-scented churchwomen wore
so I sat on the vinyl kitchen floor, my arms holding
tight to knees as she yanked away
nappy coils and pressed them into ponytails
of dark ribbon. On Saturday afternoons, the kitchen
doubled as beauty shop, the gas stove an incense burner
smoking hot combs, curling rods and hair. Gladys sat
in a black lacquered chair, paid on lay-a-way from working
in the backs of restaurants and cleaning the insides
of toilets for white folks. It was honest work
for an honest person trying to make it in the world
and have a little left over. How happy she was
that one morning to place under the Christmas tree
my very own doll, one to sit with over the weekends
and do its hair. And I wonder how she felt when I
demanded she return the nylon haired plastic doll
for a white one. I didn’t want something that needed
a grandmother, that needed hot combs and hair grease.
Sometimes you can watch a person age, the face
displays the cinematic reel of history, of white sheets
burnt cross and blackface. She returned the doll
and I remember her more silent than usual. At that
moment in the car I could have been any girl, from
el barrio or the hood or the rez, any brownish girl riding
with her grandmother as the car inches away from the store lot
families coated and gloved rushing with bags to and fro
snow falling and eyes facing forward, while each
wiper in the windshield drags itself along.
for all women finding themselves a country.
a country taken possession by a fist. the fist holds
history. the history of somebody’s mama.
the history of their mama’s mama.
for the numbers. for 50 bullets and black blood shed.
for the years at war and the next soldier dead.
for longing. for not the bullet. but broken skin.
for a hovering gospel. hand clap and holy ghost.
for the open mouth. not speak when spoken to.
for the robber. for the robbed.
for this naked black ass. kneeling before you. holy.
for a word this girl never claimed to be.
(“Ars Poetica” originally published in The Language of Shedding Skin, Main Street Rag, 2010; reprinted in Aunt Chloe, 2011)
Niki Herd earned degrees in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and Antioch in Los Angeles. She is the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her work has been supported by the Astraea Foundation and the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and has appeared in several journals and anthologies. The Language of Shedding Skin, her first collection of poems, was a 2009 finalist for the Benjamin Saltman Prize. In the following year, it was a finalist for the Main Street Rag Poetry Award and was published by the press.
Author photograph by Jennie Scott.