April 18, 2021

Two Poems

This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Catharsis, No.25
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Every night, I go back to Mr. Jefferson’s place, searching still
his kitchens, behind staircases, in a patch of shade somewhere
beside his joinery & within his small ice house, till I get down
that pit, lined with straw, where Mr. Jefferson once stacked frozen slabs
of river water until summer. Then, visitors would come to him
to ask about a peculiar green star, or help him open up
his maps. They’d kneel together on the floor, among his books
lavish hunks of ice melting like the preserved tears
of some antique mammal who must have wept
to leave Albemarle, just as I wept when I landed in Milan
for the first time, stone city where Mr. Jefferson began
to learn the science of ice houses, how you dig into the dark
flank of the land, how you seal the cavity. Leave open
just one small hatch through which I might lift, through gratings
Mr. Jefferson’s cold dressed victuals, his expensive butter & salads
the sealed jars sweating clear gems of condensation, white blood
appearing from warm air, as if air could break & slough, revealing
the curved arc of our shared Milan. There, I wore silver rings
on each thumb. I studied & spoke in fine houses
of ice. I knew a kind of crying which sealed me to such realms
for good. Old magic weep, old throb-in-throat. How much
of my fondness for any place is water, stilled & bound
to darkness?
Farm Book
Whenever I write about Mr. Jefferson, he gallops
over. Knock knock, he begins in quadruplicate. It’s
pretty wild, like my student’s poem about a house
of skin & hair, a house that bleeds. Mr. Jefferson’s
place is so dear to me, white husk my heart beats
through, until I can’t write more. In my student’s
poem, the house stands for womanhood, pain coiled
in the drywall. Sorrow warps the planks, pulling nails
from ribs. In Kentucky, I’m the only black teacher
some of my students have ever met, & that pulls me
somewhere. I think of Mr. Jefferson sending his field
slaves to the ground, a phrase for how he made them pull
tobacco & hominy from the earth, but also for how
he made of the earth an oubliette. At sixteen, they wentto the ground if Mr. Jefferson thought they couldn’t learn
to make nails or spin. He forgot about them until they
grew into cash, or more land. For him, it must’ve seemed
like spinning. Sorrow of souls, forced to the groundas a way of marking off a plot. At sixteen, I couldn’t
describe the route to my own home, couldn’t pilot
a vehicle, could hardly tell the hour on an analog
clock. I had to wear my house-key on a red loop
around my neck. Now, I rush to class beneath a bronze
Confederate, his dark obelisk, his silent mustache. My books
tumble past the lectern as I recite Mr. Jefferson’s litany: Swan.
Loon. Nuthatch. Kingfisher. Electric web of names, yetin the ground, I know, a deeper weave of gone-away ones
who should mean more to me than any book. I live in language
on land they left. I have no language to describe this.
Kiki Petrosino is the author of four books of poetry: White Blood: a Lyric of Virginia(forthcoming, 2020), Witch Wife (2017), Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013), and Fort Red Border (2009), all from Sarabande Books.
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