Hung Down Her Head

“Your Gramma’s gonna die someday,”
she’d tell me. She’d always been dying,
since she was a girl–
her mother tried to smother her
with a pillow before walking out.
She pretended to die
to save herself, for
men to treat he meanly,
all of them,
one right after the other.

She’d sing me the song of Tom Dooley,
terrifying in her barrotone
as she rocked and
held me tighter than
I would have liked.
I miss her, but not like that–
not in that lamp light,
or with that breath,
not when she showed me
the scary realities
of oppressed
and depressed
old women
after hours.

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The Second of September, 1983

Since they never married and he wasn’t there to argue,

his line was left blank on my birth certificate;

I inherited my mother’s past identity as my own.

Every year, I imagine him wrestling with the feeling

of having forgotten an important name

and going through the alphabet letter by letter.

He makes me wonder if I could be the reincarnation

of Jimmy Gray, gassed hours before my birth for the sodomy

and murder of three year old Deressa Seales.

I came late to my own party but caught mother

wrapping gifts. Great-great Gramma Young died earlier

that day of congestive heart failure, a synonym

for old age. I heard her face was made of deeply cut crevices.

She wore the softest sweaters and had a doily for everything—

her absence long forgiven but not his.

I may have dislodged and leaked out an ear

while he banged his head to unconsciousness on a metal

headrest after noxious fumes filled killer lungs

that breathed in adolescent death twice in ten years.

Spectators counted eleven moans before the room

was cleared by an admittedly drunk executioner.

Reporters called it inhumane the way he suffered.

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