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Jo-Ann Reid

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


I. Reduction

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


II. Peeling

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


III. Folding

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

We fought.

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.

I stir.


IV. Paring

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. 

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