Alabaster Hands
Edmonia Lewis, 1862

Let me tell you how
white hands kilned me
in the moonless middle
of night. How they stripped
and spittled and smeared me
in an open field hardened
with ice. How they worked so
diligently upon me with palm
and fist and angry sweat,
with knuckle and dirty nail,
until I was struck still as stone,
until I was one with the dust
of the Earth that called my name,
whispered to me from its labyrinth
of lava and buried bone. My truth
was honed there, deep in the fated
crease between life and loss.
It willed me to rise from the dirt
and staggered me home.
I claimed for my own
what they’d strived to strike
from me. I scraped myself
up from what they’d tried
to beat down. And now
I let them witness how
artfully their curses fold;
how ruthlessly I mastered
their death-less hands
beneath the weight
of my mercy-fraught mold.

 

 

Indian Combat
Edmonia Lewis, Marble, 1868

We three warriors
were called forth
to be, forever, enemies.
Stolen from marble,
pressed into slaughter,
we never weary. We
seek no asylum except
the perpetual hatchet,
the eternal blade,
the never-ending arrow,
our fists that swallow
our senses till we’ve carved
ourselves into memorials
for causes long forgotten.
Our fight was forged
by a free brown woman’s
brunt, her design for
all our fates entwined
like fingers laced in prayer
for victory, then mercy,
then dug into the Earth
to resurrect our embattled
lives lived just as her own:
pounded into memory
with mettle on stone.

 

These poems are from Jess’s newest collection, Olio, forthcoming from Wave Books on 5 April. 

Photograph © Jeff from Houston

Possible
Cry of Machines