The Math Lesson
In Nigeria, a cross-armed president
takes the name “Goodluck” in vain
while their veins opened arms to retrieve
only 219; the fall of September.
Subtract 81 still hoping while Nigeria
screams for progress in silenced posters
A campaign to Bring Us Back now ripped
down to newspaper for wrapping fish.
Our hands hide in the fabric of cold fast fingers
Flying toward status and pinned interest…
Electric birds cawing characters 140 is
The number they care about…
Stretch out and yawn apathy while we still wait
A home out of reach built on Boko; it leans heavy
toward our cameras wrapped in fading colors
while our tech army aims to gorge
on stories pushed passive on swollen tongues;
Each of 300 multiplied by bones
Each rib is our own rib
Each mouth slashed shut
Each neck opened
Each hollowing of fruit
Each black man still burns with America
Each sting of smoke through holes in our own story
We see through each other; type quickly
miss nothing; hold post at a wall
that guards nothing.
14 sister tears doubled in decorative death
2 hung from climbing trees; a fruit still strange
Sustaining only our own with heavy lidded eyes
Snapped shut the bullet cases still click our quick guilt
It is us shot and dying in our own streets
It is our own hands served up to protect
What is another 4 hours laying down?
Dead, with no arms to speak of, a sound still bites
Why do black men and brown men still have to
Show themselves with both hands open?
Held high, we admit nothing until forced to bed.
Ferguson, Missouri: A sheriff still swollen
swallows his own pride. I see
Indian sisters in the brown and black bodies of men
Still hanging on other men’s’ ghosts
Still whispering the hate inside us
We are raised on requiems
Lying still, our necks spilling our pockets jingling coins
To drown out the sound of karmic comings
Machete becomes lens—sharpened for slashing
Aimed low and armed for shooting
Aimed low and sharpened hungry for American heads
This is the journal we keep and they pages are heavy
This world is scarlet.
It is us still dangling; all paused before the snap
From sharpened edge of trees still stained, colors flying
still chained ours is blood deep rooted
ours is our girls, our burning men still smoking,
Newspaper necks opened, the news is seeping.
Fattened on speeches; no muscle extended
Thickened forward to bring us back.
The Kitchen Test
Christmas tree sap—pungent and thick with direction.
Fried plantains soak in the scent of swollen red kidney beans.
Yams candy in the oven; not my mother’s recipe.
My mother’s bridal cookbook awed me.
Handwritten recipes steeped in French: bouillabaisse, sauté, confiture de fraise
the sweet and heavy whip of translations of what sustains her:
food, husband, children, and work.
My mother’s cookbook conjuring academe French I did not know then
anchored by black & white wedding photos; her eyes both seeking
the holy promise of water—a blessing
Her eyes paused on a picture or ingredient
Breath evened by a table lined; the order of oven to table
My instinct was to go off the page; a deviation
From process—even in my mundane layers of carrots
washed free of debris; only half-soaked ad cut down to size for sugarcoating
The black pepper last in line to temper the sugar with intention
of caramelized messages sweetly breaking over taste buds
stubborn sweet then tickled pepper breaking open
What if I could code myself in this language?
What I could learn to speak in measurements; announce order?
What if matching tablecloths and sorted spoons
Shed fears of plates stumbling from my hands?
Popping my knuckles I listened again to her whisking —premature she said
Then more insistent: three months; you’re a fighter and so on
My birth forced to myth and I a mystery to her. I was
bewildered each time she claimed me a marvel proof that God is good.
Other days: You must have crawled out from under a rock became my place.
A slippery origin
rather than the blessed infant walkabout; hands camped quietly
the my gauze of my three month old skin that ached
to split open. Cutdowns by medication burned and thickened
my arms into carnivale stares and searching eyes wondering what tattoos meant
if these we only mine. No ink or needles. Sharpened my wish to know
yellow or rubber from that time in a box that breathed just for me
while my gloved mother basted my skin with warmth and to the good sign
of my solid feet
I am eager to say yes and join
the world still fresh and stirring for me to just break open and live.
Back to the turning over of vegetables…unsure
The slipping of stable iron from my hands—always fretful
Of the first bites of guests pecking
The order of obligatory kisses to strangers while I had learned otherwise
The silent threat of strangers starred in my America.
Turn away, lock doors, never let sweets slip through.
Imperfectly glazed—the carrots flimsy and breaking, my eyes iron cast downward;
My mouth bare and unsuitable for Holiday Company
A clumsy anthill, a cog of black simmering
(The pepper insisted on being noticed.)
V. Soup Bones
My father briefly mulls over these pages
Until the image of my mother—a close up of her in white
Moves him to stillness; a healing
Wearing fresh surgical gloves, snug and sturdy
Against his drumming fingers
He is awaiting the time when he’ll carve
the meats quickly; correctly with the satisfying break
of bone, slicing of meat, the sharing of plates sturdy
with island food: griot pork can tell your past; black rice dyed
with mushrooms spin a memory on your tongue
still tasting languages…the click of joints announced
meat and marrow; my father’s work was preparation.
There is precision in cutting; a dance of blade to skin.
Thickened knuckles tight in the grip of clean lines.
Jo-Ann Reid is an Associate Professor of English in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Dean College in Franklin, MA. Her work has appeared in Barrow Street and Shaking Like a Mountain. As the daughter of Haitian immigrants, her work explores pushes, blurs and even erases cultural boundaries, while retracing origins of expectation related to ethnicity, gender, restriction and the complexity of social justice. Ms. Reid won a poetry contest judged by Harryette Mullen while earning her MFA at The Pennsylvania State University.
Reid was recently published in The Philadelphia Review of Books and her work is forthcoming in The Ocean State Review.