By Jacqueline Johnson
Your garden is as wild as one
of Bearden’s conjure women’s.
Lush with collards, roses, lilies,
hydrangea, figs and japonica.
One summer found me walking
concrete, dusty path to your front steps.
Your pound cake yellow face,
mine a brown burgundy.
What to call you?
“Hannah, call me Hannah,” you said,
taking me by the hand into a wood paneled den
where we ate red rice pilaf, okra and shrimp.
Here you rocked babies, told stories,
healing unseen wounds
with the salve of your spirit.
One night it seemed like God-the-Father
and all his saints had come down to earth.
Closed all windows in our nine room colonial.
Streets from Battery to Logan,
houses under the watermark,
flooded to doorsteps.
Old trees split and burnt
by lightning hit power lines
and spontaneous rivers of mud.
Sheets and clothes hung out to dry
cast wet and dirty once again.
On such a night I slept the best sleep,
by an open window
covered all night by black angels.
Some days your heart is a clouded
screen covered in life’s silt.
My face reminds you of my fathers’
ebon, long mercurial attitude.
Something he did wrong twenty years ago,
riding your mind like a haint.
Thoughts cross as branches in a birds nest.
Your words vinegar around my tears.
Something Pop did wrong a long time ago.
In a rage you tore all the pretty bows
off my many birthday dresses
scattering them like birds into bitter, fallow air.
Grandmother was seventy-five and I eleven
when she told me about her first baby.
Her memory meticulous with a will of its own.
Air heavy with summer heat;
salted herring, grits and eggs.
Barely 18, with a sick tan, baby boy.
She tried to stare down a woman
who took race
more seriously than her vocation.
I can almost hear sound of her refusal;
flat eternal no.
Grandma’s sepia face,
tearless and stark in morning light,
her voice drifting into hidden hills and valleys,
timbres only the soul knows;
told me how her baby died in her arms.
How that white nurse never did a thing to save him.
She needs no pity
only that I listen;
know the world I have inherited.
Jacqueline Johnson is a multi-disciplined artist creating in both writing and fiber arts. She is the author of A Woman’s Season, on Main Street Rag Press and A Gathering of Mother Tongues, published by White Pine Press, and is the winner of the Third Annual White Pine Press Poetry Award. Johnson has received awards from the New York Foundation of the Arts, the Middle Atlantic Writers Association’s Creative Writing Award in poetry, MacDowell Colony for the Arts and is a Cave Canem fellow. She is a graduate of New York University and the City University of New York. A native of Philadelphia, Penn., she resides in Brooklyn, N.Y.