Saturday Oct 21

JohnsonRoxaneBeth Roxane Beth Johnson’s first book of poetry is Jubilee (Anhinga, 2006), was the winner of the 2005 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. Philip Levine was the judge.  Her second book, Black Crow Dress, is forthcoming from Alice James Books.  She has won an AWP Prize in Poetry and a Pushcart Prize, 2007.  She has received scholarships/fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Cave Canem, The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, San Francisco Arts Commission and Vermont Studio Center.  Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Image, CallalooThe Pushcart Prize Anthology, Beloit Poetry Journal, Chelsea, ZYZZYVA, The Bitter Oleander, Sentence and elsewhere.  She lives in San Francisco.
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The Slaves Arrive And Do Not Leave For Months
 
 
I take dictation from the slaves for three weeks and then I begin to bring home flowers. My apartment becomes their grave. A roomy casket they are impressed with, glad that death has turned out so good. They lie down in pairs and discuss life back then as I sleep. They lick newspapers for words. They chew up books like bad dogs.  And so, my dreams are noisy with their nonsense, their ugly tales. A teacher says that I cannot be the narrator of their story, I’ve got to get one of them to do it. Clea? Caroline? Maybe Zebedee. I try for a year and that is when they disappear. Or rather, they fade and droop, their heads like sweet old lilies. Their stems gone soggy in all that water.
 
 
 
Prudence Finch Remembers Her Slave Clea: First Memory
 
 
Daddy bought me one, a girl. I was seven and she was five. She had hands black as velvet and fingernails the color of skinned peaches.
 
She shone like a new moon, like a light’s bright fist. She reminded me of strange birds I saw in picture books: a toucan or a raven.
 
She was sluggish as turtles in baskets that the cook would make into soup. She wouldn’t do what I told her. She sat in the shade, nested in her silence. Her quiet was a boat.
 
Soon we got along, were friends of a sort. Her open palms were pink roses that held her albatrosses. They roosted near ponds, grew wingless and sat on eggs that never hatched.
 
 
 
Zebedee The Mulatto Walking Behind Slave Quarters at Night
 
 
Some man is always smoking, tilting his head to watch stars.
A woman mouths hush-hush for a baby barely owned.
Sometimes fat is fried, a body is bent to fit a small grave.
What kind of life is this? A little bit of life, a broken branch
but not the whole tree. Someone sings a song sounds like
she’s singing you can’t finish your life by living, your soul
don’t need your body, just using it for a time. When I dream
I am walking slowly, stepping on cracking twigs, thinking
I might just go ahead and die. What kind of life is this?
An old woman sewing at dawn bloomed in shadows on the walls.
When she died, they made us break her like glass to fit a round hole.
She sang what a spirit got to do with this skin, these bones?
My little pain. There is this living. I don’t know how to let it go.
 
 
 
The Poet’s Notes: Clea’s Ghost Comes For An Extended Visit
 
 
Clea does not respond to the other slaves’ stories and she is undaunted by Zebedee’s presence in the room. To say she ignores him is to say she might be deaf. Or, she might just not care anymore. She goes about my place making dust behind the counters, letting in flies and turning the cheese to mold. She also makes orchids bloom and creates a nice echo in the bathroom, where I can sing. She’s always wearing that black crow dress.
 
 
 
Prudence Finch Sits In My Kitchen And Tells Clea About A Dream She Had Many Years After Emancipation
 
 
You appeared at the piano in the parlor your last day. I said, you are free.
 
Your voice still rings like the church bell. Hands gestured sentences. You spooled words tight and kept the spiral inside. I always knew what you didn’t say would blacken our flesh to ashes.
 
Languishing in his empty room, my father struck the dinner bell, the breakfast bell, the call for cigars and bourbon. You came on cue. He isn’t anymore, not even in my dreams.
 
We are figures in paintings. My eyes painted this way, yours painted like that. Let me smell your hair again, it’s grassy and nutty hue.
 
In my dream, you looked out the window. You wanted it open. The beams you wanted removed, the roof burned to its edges. You needed to fly out. Leaving through the back door wouldn’t do.
 
Better to remember things proper. You are gone long as years on more hands counted than two. I am still a branch on my father’s tree. Kind I was, but I never did leave the corners of his house.
 
This dream of you is better memory than remembering you going. Go, Clea. Fly out in your crow-black dress.