Poetry | September 01, 2001
Poetry Feature: Camille Dungy
Featuring the poems
- Before My History Classes
- In His Library
- From Someplace
- How Quickly He Went
Before My History Classes
Grandpa was coming to visit that night,
and my sister wore blue jeans and a blouse.
In pajamas, I wanted to be old
so I could stay up with her to meet him.
I had religion on my mind and knew
what questions would stall Mother when she came
to tuck the little-girl sheets around me.
I tricked her into talking about Christ,
the Bible, asked what Heaven held in store.
Why should I sleep? I told her, When I die,
I want to meet all the dead. They’ll be dressed
and acting just like they did when they lived.
She snapped my sheet, a warning, kissed my head:
Someday you’ll be more careful what you wish.
In His Library
Grandpa’s wife lived in Springfield (where mobs killed
two black men to remind themselves they could),
and, I suppose, she gave him all those books
about The Great Emancipator’s life,
but I knew nothing of that in those days.
The best book proved villains could be vanquished,
and photos lent support. Conspirators
of John Wilkes Booth dangled, their hooded heads
all the evidence I needed. My folks
bored me, so I read while they asked Grandpa
if he would move back to Alabama.
Why? What good has that place ever done me?
At six, what did I know about anger?
How could I know, then, what I was learning?
Everything we wore that needed rescue,
pants we’d torn and shirts with ripped-off buttons,
went to Grandpa’s house. When we visited,
we modeled. Grandpa adjusted our clothes
with stick pins. Almost weekly, he saved us,
my sister and me, restoring the clothes
we’d lately damaged. You should teach the girls
how this is done, Mother once suggested,
her arms delivery mending, her eyes
collecting Grandpa’s hands, the snapped-tight box
that housed his machine, his needles. He ripped
her words as he told us never to do
with a hanging thread. Let them save their time.
He took the clothes. Let them do useful things.
Dreams are sometimes livable, provided
there is property enough, and each house
in Buxton had a little plot of land.
Every worker had to have a garden,
and black folks grew theirs right among the whites’.
Buxton Industries mined coal, fueled the turn
of another century. That far back,
and still, a Negro could make a life there,
and Great-grandfather, the village’s best
blacksmith, did. So it’s no shock, Grandmother,
that, in Springfield, you moved your boys
into the white district, wouldn’t let them swim
in that old mud hole called the colored pool.
How Quickly He Went
He was a man who walked beside failure
but had gone on living. At eighty-five,
he might have lived another twenty years
if he could hope the wife who pulled away
to stay on that platform back in Springfield
might change her mind. It was his desire
for her that had staked him fifty years. Love
was one slim woman with a nursing job
in Illinois. Life was a business,
a Gary tailor shop he could not sell.
And so his chance with her had gone. She died
in August. Before January slung
its shivers on the wind, he had stopped breathing.
What was the use of holding some body?
Those black men flew out of Tuskegee armed
with skills, and that diploma supervised
his store. Now there’s nothing but the mirror
in our basement and an oak spool-holder,
a plaque of thread my mother still consults
when she mends a hem. My father’s father
is a photo I barely recognize.
He lives in my uncle’s face. He reaches
for me with my father’s hands, but he died
before I knew anything about him
but cast-off things, died before I could write
a story for him about anything
but loss. What do I know if I don’t know
what it is that would have made him a man?
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