Amadou, Trayvon, Tamir, Michael, Eric, Sandra, all, live
a death that screams foul, shrieks black matters.
Felled by knee jerk fingers of control officers,
Black innocence-until-proven-different bleeds bleak black matters.
Don’t shoot, I can’t breathe echo slave ship horrors,
old sea and field chants repeat black matters.
Spirits seen, heard, touched and remembered rise
among the living, rage cracks and leaks black matters.
The constant knell rumbles deep ebon waters.
Tidal ire pounds old walls with peaks of black matter.
The bliss of shuteyes and sand filled ears comforts
the ostrich fraught and freaked by black matters.
It’s a long perilous path through the midnight graveyard
of 40 mules for multitudes hungering for their due. Yes, indeed, black matters.
The richest soil is blackest. Stars have no substance without night’s coal
canvas. Shadows that define the light need black matter.
Words shape margins, make meaning of empty promises. I am the poet, Mary.
I write black phrases on white paper to sound the breach and reach of these black matters.
(to my grandmother)
Stern dark coffee face, intense
eyes of a hawk out to feed her young.
Wide hips, stomach draped by breasts
sucked flat by hunger, need.
Hands that washed tables,
lifted lids to stir beans,
stoked pot belly coals,
fanned us both in sultry church,
gnarled ends of empty arms, finished
body of work; a wrought iron
in the dining room corner,
the tip-by place between front and back
in a yellow shotgun on Oak Street.
Were those your dreams, Annie?
Rich womb of poverty and blackness,
fourteen babies pushed into the stumble
of life. Those your hopes?
–Two all that’s left grown-ass sons
mumbling how ya doin’ mama?
They pass you, grab the broken
refrigerator handle, a grape Nehi,
slam the screen door to nowhere
in particular before you could answer.
Sister next-door Johnson, yoohooing
herself in, walkin’ and talkin’
‘bout castor oil, Jesus, and the robbery
at Jonas Jackson’s liquor store.
The fan rotating its dusty face sighed heat.
Papa’s framed memory watched,
waited for you.
What silent memories flickered
on screens of your closed eyes?
Ginghamed young shoulders
trembling like wild
flowers, the sun’s caress
with his breath’s touch?
That first kiss, sprawled
wide with wonder in fields
of your youth.
I’m sorry, Mama Annie,
I didn’t hear your whisper,
muffled as cars slapped the street
past rundown wooden fences,
mulberry trees, store front
churches, and the penny candy
store. At the afternoon’s
screen door I daydreamed
him– he and I thrummed
like the chrome bright
deuce and a quarter and the hot
pepper mustang held back
by the red light on the corner,
eager to thrust
into mysteries of the next minute.
He touched my hand,
his silly song a hot breeze
in my ear, stomach twitters
rose to a blush of giggles.
When you called the August heat
pulsed with memories
of his leg brushed against mine,
playing two-handed Tonk
on the red and gold chintz two-seater.
I’m sorry you needed
me, a smart mouthed thirteen year old
who ducked the flying slop jar lid,
frustration thrown by hands
that had combed my nappy ungrateful
hair, checked my bedtime teeth.
I didn’t hear you then, Mama Annie.
I hear you now.
Chocolate moon face,
round as awe’s surprise.
Gleeful, quicksilver smile,
feisty fierce faith
that the world is for you
to re-create in your own image,
to squish like mud
Sunday afternoons at the beach.
Bathroom sink fumes from mixed
household cleaners announce
your grinning curiosity.
The giggling patter of running feet
take you to what’s next:
tempting wall socket covers
playgrounds of discoveries
milling mall crowds
your eyes at hip level in denim forests
adventurer among strangers
no blocks no boundaries
worlds of whys and what’s that
at the schoolhouse
door where they squeezed
the roundness of you
into a black boy
square hole not big
enough to wonder in.
Mama dropped joy in the stash
Behind the secondhand chest
Of drawers that smelled of elbow grease.
Woman’s got to have her own, she said,
Her conspiratorial wink invited
Me to grown folk’s business.
Wrapped me in generous generations,
Rocked me with wisdom:
Know when you hold a lightening bug
Or a housefly with a mesmerizing
Lamp on his tail.
Change your raggedy mind
When you go out, life’s full
Of accidents. Always
Carry some spare light
In your purse so you can get home.
Just in case, I’ll leave some love
In the window for you.
There’s fixings on the stove.
Help yourself to the mix.
Taste your strength, Daughter;
Add your own verbs and spices.
Memories are on the top shelf.
Watch yourself, kitchens can swelter,
But the world craves the stew
You make, needs the sweat you scatter.
I am from a ground floor duplex
Where determined dandelions dotted
My backyard, a wilderness, fragrant
With honeysuckle crashed
By thorny blackberries in vined chaos.
I am from front porch greetings
And back porch Knuckles courage
On Mother May I steps.
I am from Miss Red, the bootlegger,
Who never failed to lean from her porch
and ask, “How was school today, baby?”
Where Mr. Swan, the numbers runner,
With fedora, shiny winged-tipped shoes,
And Gertrude, his forever yapping Chihuahua,
Always had five dollars mama could borrow
On come-up short days.
I am from streets children swarmed,
Bees in search of a hive
In cherry trees and mulberry bushes,
Away from grown up business
Where Ole Lady Robinson collected
Tubs of balls that ruffled her roses,
Where Midnight Leroy, the howling
Wino was a sober school crossing guard;
Where Miss Peach and her ladies
Entertained men’s dreams
While their children slept.
I am from Summertime Good Humor
And frozen chunks of sun relief
Stolen from dripping ice trucks.
From skirts flared wide
Over ornate iron heat grates;
Escape from icy
Snot, angry winter toes.
From Miss Sharpe, the schoolteacher
who taught everything we wondered
And more we never thought.
Mr. Newberry, the butcher,
Who’d tell about you acting out
on the street when Mama came
in to pay the bill.
Mr. Hayden, the whistling mailman,
As steady as snow, rain, and gloom of night,
Twice on Saturday and once on Sunday
During the Christmas rush;
Mr. Loomis, Mr. Pratt, so many
Plant workers, a parade
Of lunch boxes, coveralls, and factory dust.
I am from acid rain that scratched
The stench of black smoke
Puffed from mill stacks,
A horizon of fat Robber Baron cigars.
I am from childhood sweethearts,
— a ten year old girl
Who got a 1920s job at Miss Anne’s house
And a college degree despite the Depression.
—an angry young Black man
On the long Migration North
Who searched for a rain and shine
36 year job with a pension,
Better than shining shoes or
Cleaning toilets back home.
Together no matter what
Because binding wounds
In wars with wolves took many hands
And someone to guard the door.
I am from multitudes met and unmet,
Their stories on my shoulders
To give the children reach.
I am from your chin up,
Your head down.
I am from loss and moving on.
A previous version of “Wonderer” appeared in Hanley M.S. and View, J. (2014). Poetry and drama as counter-narrative. Cultural Studies-Critical Methodologies. Vol. 14 no. 6, 558-573.
Mary Stone Hanley received a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction in multicultural education and drama from the University of Washington, Seattle. From 1996 to 2012, she taught arts education and critical multicultural education courses at Antioch University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and George Mason University. She has written and performed poetry for decades and created poetry workshops in higher education and in various communities to stimulate creative and critical thinking about issues of race, class, and social justice. Her poetry has been published in educational journals such as Cultural Studies-Critical Methodologies, International Journal of Education and the Arts, and The Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy. She is currently an MFA student in Creative Writing at American University.