(for the African American slave women subjected to forced breeding)
The years between us are bolled Gossypeum,
tenacious clawed realities spinning yarns—chilling truth not yarn,
Mandeville knew this was a beast-sprouting plant—
our kutn, your cotton—their currency of carnage,
I am told ‘her’ pain is not ‘yours’
to articulate, share or voice; still, I seek her in
the blurred spirals of the feminine self,
my hand seeking her palm as a mirror,
perhaps, she imagined snowflakes to pick, snowflakes—
the white gold falling from the sky in the North,
instead, her fingers stabbed cotton like wasps,
the destiny of her people hewed her body
to a sickle seeking earth’s arms more than sky,
did she think, “I’ll be picking cotton till the sun is a hole,”
in the lament-soaked sky of waning blues?
Did she seek answers in the liminal spaces of
unsought choices blooming like soft cotton:
better the cotton-picking than
de weddin’ ‘tween de cows and de bulls,*
than the decree from dank walls,
than the brooding air of muffled suffering,
than the damp wet cave of smothered pain,
than fingers and pubescence prying her open like a can,
than the unwilling rabbet of her private to his,
better numbing labor than the pinioning of air
pressing as a bale of hay,
the straw filling her mouth, throat, lungs,
her eyes sweeping the air like bats?
Outside, the sullen crushed sympathy,
like lifeless cotton with hardened seeds,
ears dialed to deafness for survival,
better her hands furrowed and perforated?
better her palms fissured with ancestral pain?
Did the moments of anger pile on stone by stone
to sift between unsought pickings
be a breeding woman than/
be fettered to a whipping post?
This better than a back striped like a field,
red petals of welts blooming to the sun,
a waste of dandelions around her drooping in shame,
staining her memory’s notebook of incoherent rage,
a rage alive breathing like cotton?
* Quote by a slave woman on crude eugenics practiced by slave owners from Thelma Jennings, “Journal of Women’s History, “Us colored women had to go through a plenty: Sexual exploitation of African American slave women”, Johns Hopkins University Press, Volume 1, Number 3, Winter 1990, pp. 50; 45-74 . (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/363025/pdf)
*Guineamen: cargo ships for transporting slaves.
The rug weaver
(for Clara Sherman)
They called her the ‘rug-weaver’, and ‘mother-weaver’—the one who weaved the courage of her people. Grandmother Clara of the Hashtłʼishnii spun her clan’s memories by the lantern of day and the black tresses of night. From her fingers the wool flowed singing a lullaby. When she spun her rugs, the diamonds rose like pyramids on the loom, boldly triumphant. She was crone so she could play a jaunty song on the harmonica smiling like a young girl. This woman knew how to make melodies from the wind’s secrets and the earth’s rhythms. She knew the earth’s language and, still, man’s soul was free as a song in the wind.
There are names for almost everything, we learn,
the wool gliding through her fingers as a river held by loving banks,
her fingers go over and over smoothing bumps
as our minds go over memories till we are free of their abrasion.
In deft motions she cards the cloud-like wool, coaxed to long tendrils,
vine of memory fluid in her sturdy fingers,
shell glasses, face furrowed like a ploughed land, the years have left ridges,
but her eyes hold still like a meditating Buddha,
and her smile is wide enough to encompass loss,
the breadth of plundered land,
she spins Ganado red diamonds pirouetting in the wind of time.
“Go easy, your arm, your hand feels it, knows it… right here, the wool cries.”
Let us never stop loving the earth, river, wind and sky.
And our story continues. As she wove, she spoke about another weaver, the mother weaver of us all. How she wove the canopy of the sky, the waterfall of light and the tunnel of night, then the golden glimmering stars, and the whirling planets, how her loom glittered with the cosmos. And how finally she wove the destinies of men all through time. And how she wove with fingers of love on a loom of eternity. When a rug was ready, she unstrung it and wove again from the beginning, going tap tap tap.
(This poem’s format took its cue from the article by Anthony K. Wenster, ‘Who reads Navajo poetry and what are they reading? Exploring the semiotic functions of contemporary written Navajo .’: In general, Navajos that I have worked with classify poetry as hane’ [“story, narrative”] and not as sin [“song”] (Webster 2009). Although some poets – Luci Tapahonso, for example – often insert songs into their poetry. This practice, of inserting songs into a narrative, resonates with Navajo oral tradition (see Webster 2011b). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10350330.2012.693298?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=csos20 “Go easy, your arm, your hand feels it, knows it… right here, the wool cries.”- quote from Clara Sharman’s youtube video on carding and weaving. Beginning as a story the poem is inserted in the narrative.)
(for Zhang Shen)
Whatever the narrative whatever the century, she shrinks:
these are the feet of the sentence laid out bare;
a tale to tell, tall feat between the crushed bones of centuries; between
the tendons of Tang, Han and Song—language is pompous ballooning
for a conquering mind: Five dynasties and Ten Kingdoms ended in a Song
so it seems, a mouthful of syllables jingling in the mouth, names of
dynasties: Liang Tang Jin Han Zhou Wu Wuyue Win Chu Shu;
long long lines of glory; phallic strides, mountainous thrusts
in Art; this is one unbroken uncrushed narrative.
But something is shrinking imperceptibly.
Beauty is in the eye of the
masculine beholder whose gaze says make her
small small smaller till she cannot
stand so perfect so beautiful so dainty,
imagine moonbeams for feet
and lotuses for footprints. A
mere four inches—and
the male ego
I am a tea pot
I hiss, I pour a bitter tea
on my dainty feet!
On my dainty feet,
I hiss, I pour a bitter tea!
Usha Akella has authored four books of poetry, one chapbook, and scripted/produced two musical dramas. Her next book is due from Spinifex Press, the well noted feminist press in Australia. She earned an MSt in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge, UK. Her last poetry book, The Waiting was published by Sahitya Akademi, (India’s highest Literary authority) in 2019 followed by the Mantis Editores, Mexico edition in Spanish translated by Elsa Cross. She was selected as a Creative Ambassador for the City of Austin for 2019 & 2015 Her work has been included in the Harper Collins, India Anthology of English Poets. She is the founder of Matwaala (www.matwaala.com) and hosts www.the-pov.com, an interview and conversations website. Matwaala is the first South Asian Diaspora Poets Festival in the US that she co-directs with Pramila Venkateswaran. The festival is seriously dedicated to increasing the visibility of South Asian poets in the mainstream. She is also the founder of the Poetry Caravan in New York and Austin which takes poetry readings to the disadvantaged in women’s shelters, senior homes, hospitals. Several hundreds of readings have reached these venues via this medium. The City of Austin proclaimed January 7th as Poetry Caravan Day. She has been published in numerous Literary journals, and has been invited to prestigious international poetry festivals in JLF-Houston, Romania, Canada, Slovakia, Nicaragua, Macedonia, Colombia, Slovenia, India etc. She has won literary prizes such as the Poetry Society of India 2019 Commendation prize, Nazim Hikmet award, Open Road Review Prize and Egan Memorial Prize and earned finalist status in a few US based contests. She read with a group of eminent South Asian Diaspora poets at the House of Lords in June 2016. She has been invited as a keynote speaker to TLAN’s Power of Words conference 2019 and the Turkish Center in Austin. She’s been interviewed widely. She has written a few quixotic nonfiction prose pieces published in The Statesman and India Currents. Her work ranges from feminist/activist to Spiritual and all things in-between.