“This is how everyone in India is brought up—listening to ghost stories.” –Sushil Sharma, The Washington Post
the village men fear my evil mouth: so-called daayan feeding on cattle,
stirring dust to stifle crops. i am single. have no man
to stand his two feet on top of my ground & reassure:
i am no danger.
me with the lotus painted on her bedroom wall. me the she-devi,
& lower, until i end in dirt.
men cry for help. the dayaans, they say, have different
eyes. they say our mantras shrill up the dry air. some forget
they, too, are sudras, all told to serve
all bent to till all bent toward ground.
they say we crave the blood of chickens,
the piss & shit of men. they cram it
the ohja is always a man. he can sense the dayaan’s floral
spirit—a wicked thing—in the sal trees, before he brands her
name onto its branches. he waits for inevitable wither. he performs
his white magic. his purification. tosses rice at white ants. asks that they gravitate
to nonexistent black.
they bring me a burnt rooster’s ashes, wrapped in banana leaf, sprinkled
with boiled rice. they crouch behind shrubbery, waiting.
there is gold in my house. there is gold on my hands.
the ohja has his men, his summoning. let them bribe me. they will break
my teeth. they will rape my sisters. they want it all white—but me,
i’m this dark woman. i’ve been working their fields under their
sun. they come into my altar, my whitewashed walls. they see me sitting
cross-legged on packed mud, surrounded by figurines of my gods & i am shining
like a goddamn devil.
White Queen’s Blues
Mr. Pat Water’s Very Smart Club My-O-My, known for its “female impersonators,” permitted only white patrons and performers for most of its history.
If I could dance
to your work song, hummed
as sun splits
shadow from silt
each morning, I’d have
the whole quarter
But a lady mustn’t soil her lace,
so I dance
under stage lights
far from Bourbon, and I beg:
like a peahen, Daddy,
let me swallow
music from dented
horns. I beg:
through the darkened city,
Daddy, take me
to the city
of seen dawn—
Take me, not because
the blue note
in your black skin
has sung softly
in my ear—
it has. And not because
you don’t dream well
flight, though you don’t.
take me—to the city’s
where I know
my skin newly
as the crescent
by your hand pressed
Lullaby for the Wandering Child
Tell him he was born a goldfish
and you called him marmalade,
because his tail fin reminded you
of your grandmother’s butter knife
inserted and spun about the jar,
which she held with a loose grip
and trembling hands, and it wasn’t
the mess afterwards that worried you,
it was the pouring and the tremble,
the way the light came in through
the kitchen window, and the jar
of marmalade glowed clandestine
and ricocheted amber all over
the blue kitchen walls, and when
he asks why he was born a goldfish,
tell him how you held him to the sky,
hoping the sky would seem miraculous,
jubilant even, how quickly the night
approaches, and though he will find
no answers in the stars, and though
this will not comfort him, tell him
he was a small boy with mercurial
features, born in equinox, that you
found him on land that was no good,
the dirt trodden, the grass raised
from gravel, the gravel too dense
to walk on, and tell him how the sky
that day was cut from its stalk,
and he stood before you like a bird
with both wings broken, a violin
in the rain slowly pulled against
the landscape, and when he is done
asking his questions, and when
you find there is nothing left to say,
send him down to the water
and let him find his own way home.
Self-portrait as painter and sitter
A steel blue light flickers in a room
where I sit for myself. The painter
and sitter just got done arguing—
No, I’m the freak. The sitter positions
herself in the way we both prefer,
yet neither will say. Have you seen
the palette I’ve picked for you?
the painter continues, Eggshell slip
of a trophy wife, ghost-wolf gray,
amber preserving our mother, blue spruce.
That seems about right to me—me too.
The painter thinks of the shade
to light the cheek, asks, How’s the family?
If the answer is, Not great, we might
need more pink. We anticipate
each other’s thoughts—the painter
always interprets the sitter’s dreams.
What were the snowballs doing? If the answer
includes, Melting quickly in my hands,
the painter considers Impressionism.
When the painter is done the sitter puts
a hand on the shoulder. Did I really look like
that? The sitter tries to remember the body.
This is how you looked in the blizzard
of your dream. The sitter squints, wonders
whether we’ve painted us frozen or alive.