Cheryl Clarke

Five Poems

by Cheryl Clarke

body double

call it weight reassignment and transition
this post post menopausal machine of bulbous tits
bulging belly
and varicose veins
to a sixty year old engine
buff with weight lifting
lightly popping arm muscles elongated thighs in thong gear
hollow-cheeked and wild-ass salt and pepper naps—
a proud silver monochrome
hung in a downtown gallery

proud as that baltimore oriole burnished by the evening luminosity
glinting his underbelly
as that red-headed finch landing on the feeder
as that variant charcoal duck with frothy white crown paddling
upstream fishing

proud like the gentleman farmer neighbor
repairing tractors in winter to show at the horseshoe festival late summer.
‘that one belonged to my father,’ he tells me proud. ‘made 60 years ago,’
pointing to a red lacquered 1947 ‘farmall tractor,’ pristine
in the noon sun.

but me proud?
to show this contraption of bulbous tits and bulging belly,
two cloud loafs
one on top of the other
drifting below the tree scape.

—To Be Left With the Body, a communal project of APLA/GMHC, Eds. Clarke and Fullwood, 2005


bald woman

Grown bald in a place hidden from ordinary sight—
except mine—and
held in memory most of the time.

I ask my lover if she is losing hers?
And sleepily I grab at her crotch. Dodging my hand,
she laughs, kisses me ‘nightee-night’ and climbs gingerly
the three flights to bed.

You always knew you’d be stuck downstairs resenting
changes, comparing them to others like your lover’s the same age
and wondering do I look like I’m bald in a place
I once could run your fingers through.

It set me apart. 

—From By My Precise Haircut, The Word Works Books, 2016

living as a lesbian on 49’s final eve

40’s lasted much too long,
mercurial merchant of necessity.  my girlfriend reminds me

‘You’ve spent a long time being young, babe, and now must surrender it quietly.’

I won’t celebrate you, foxy stranger,
for finding me,
flashing and flagging me down
forcing me to kiss your elegant feet, tawdry wench.

Stop the car the middle of the road?
Throw off my trench coat and brassiere?
Lose my glasses in dew-studded grasses?

—The Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry, 2006

song and table

What a stout song was my mother in her day.  A looker. Octoroon skin and numerous pairs of suede high heel pumps.

Shrunken at the end, though, cursing it and us.

Neighbors sat with my father while he went out.  He said not a word, just gestured, hand extending toward that table of long gone loved ones’ voices beckoning him on.  I heard them, too.  Yes, I did. They did not allow me near the table. No, they didn’t.

But I heard their voices still.

oh memory fateful and fatal

i. elegy for 1963

how many anniversaries can anybody accommodate in one week not to live in anticipation of dangerous nostalgia next year?

Jackson, Mississippi: ‘Naacp Field Secretary Medgar Evers Shot’ in the back getting out of his car in front of his house and strong man that he is, drags himself up by the car door handle, staggering up the steps, collapsing on his front porch as Mrs. Evers, the three little Evers, and awakened neighbors look on hysterically, one firing a shot to scare off the assassin.

Washington, D.C.: our neighbor, recent widow Mrs. Flowers, joins us full of hope as we take the bus to the Lincoln Memorial on a hot August day for ‘Jobs And Freedom’ returning to watch ‘I Have A Dream’ on television.  Tipped off by FBI, Maryland State Police turn back Klansmen just outside the District line, carful of weapons.

Birmingham, Alabama: when Mrs. Davis, a neighbor drove a frantic Mrs. Robertson to the 16th Street Baptist Church where the dynamite detonated into a basement choir practice, news of her daughter Carole’s murder, was broken to Mrs. Robertson by her father. ‘She’s gone, baby.’

Dallas, Texas: asked by an aide if she would like to ‘clean up’ from the blood, Mrs. Kennedy advised, ‘Let them see what they have done.’

ii. zapruder

 i hunt down that zapruder film on youtube enhanced with color and slow-mo and pant for the frames where jack thinking to smooth his hair back from his face instead surprised grips it over his forehead and the other over his throat as the first bullet enters and exits and turning to jackie falls over on her shoulder as the second shot tears into that cool hyannis-bred brain jackie in her white kid gloves chases that brahmin brain as it is jettisoned out onto the deck off that sleek ’61 lincoln before the secret service forces her back by jack’s fallen side while the rest of us take cover in front of monitors and on the lawn across the street from that texas school book depository and wonder if a third or fourth shot was fired and all those years we thought cynically jackie was trying to escape out of the back of that fully-loaded presidential continental for, as she told her negro maid the next day, ‘i thought they might’ve killed me too.’

By My Precise Haircut

Cheryl Clarke is the author of five books of poetry: Narratives: poems in the tradition of black women (1982; digitized, 2014); Living as a Lesbian (1986/2014); Humid Pitch (1989); Experimental Love (1993); After Mecca: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (2005); and The Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry 1980-2005 (2006). Her fifth book of poetry, By My Precise Haircut (2016), is now available from The Word Works Press. With Steven G. Fulllwood, she co-edited To Be Left With the Body (2008), one of a series of communal works for black gay and bisexual men produced by AIDS Project/LA. She served as an editor of Conditions(1981-1990), a feminist journal of writing with an emphasis on writing by lesbians. Since 1979, her writing has appeared in many publications, among them the iconic This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (eds. Anzaldua and Moraga, 1982) and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (ed. Smith, 1984).