Three Poems by Rachel Nelson

Rachel Nelson

Rachel Nelson

Rachel Nelson is a Cave Canem fellow and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program, where she won a Hopwood prize for playwriting. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the museum of americana, Muzzle Magazine, Pleiades, Radar Poetry, Thrush, and elsewhere. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Tar Baby Lineage


I grew in the belly    of an earthen kiln. My mother   was candlewood.
My father,     a pitch pine log.
I emerged already

old as the idea of   knots in the minds of trees.       The iron
and ash        gave me their teeth,
their stories. I

could be made to mimic    the skin of a ship,           any shining black
accusation. I was molded into a
child, called complete.

As ready to work as a brand. I was given this              plate of
corn and       greens to care for
as my own.

I have nothing else. My        father, a tall pine tree. My mother was
the ocean’s   loudest voice. I hear
her in the

rapids, how they crash against    rocks. I hear her voice in     warm rain
hoisting the river up. She says
Keep away! but

I cannot leave the water   behind. I wake from dreams with what I
hope is                     a smile, dreams of
seeping permanently into

the ground, losing my body           to red clay and black belt soil. I
hear her        voice there too. But
maybe she is

speaking to you, you down            the road. Maybe she knows who you are.





Tar Baby and His Other Names


We are Little Congo. We are                               the Queer Black Thing.         We scarecrow
to warn off every red-bellied robin                     and thief.

We are the dark forest taking                            its dark
breath. Your illustrations of old magic

and ancestors’ heads. When thought of kindly, we are Little            Black Boy,
just Little, us. The baby, nothing            to notice

here. We rabbit but we are                    not small.
Whether fur or cooled syrup, manmade

or made by God’s hand, we                               offer an example —               our silence
(we have no mouths) weaves a              fine trap

yielding a disabling and final escape.                 But you
knew that, yes? You drew us here.

The arms and legs angling within            us, are they ours?           We are
collected from bird swarm. A flock                      dark pulse.

An inky settling of wings. We                   are brothers?
We know each other? Why not?

You think you made us gentle                  creatures. Wait until you  find out
who did. We are Little Congo.                   You know

where that is? When you are                              nervous, we
are Old           Blackie, Black Police. We

have button eyes and small red hats.              Who drew us? Did               they mean
to conjure this pooling black spot?                   Or are

we to wait here, to stand-in                             for another
of your laughable monsters? We are

a small child. We lean against this white pine tree.                          Our mamas
told us           this story — Shhhh.      Dark breath

among trees speaks to us. We name it
Uncle, Grandma, Rabbit, Baby, Brer.





Tar Baby Dreams of Home


When allowed to sleep, I dream
of the slick tarp. Men
in clothes patterned with smudged

fingerprints wheeling long poles
through softly stinking vats.
Of being made into a tiny boy,

after the oil and the dull cauldron,
made dark as the closed lid of
a pond at night. I dream

of the picnic baskets —
the danger of biscuits, yams,
apples, the jug of cold

sweet cream — whatever they saw fit
to allow me to hold, enticing
the hungry to steal what

was offered in plain sight. The enslaved
were punished for theft with loss
of eyes, hands. Depending

on the value of items, a man
could lose his wife. Lids wide,
my sticky eyes not allowed

to close, I dream of not
leaving a trace on the skin
of anyone who would dare

grab an ashcake from my dark lap
and whisper their starving thanks.
Here, I am off duty, allowed to

sit and listen to the river,
gently sink into my own
skin, like a pumpkin shell

left too long in the garden.
Already punctured, I wake
up mornings — the baby

in the briar patch, a burst
container of elbows and soft feet.
A dark punishment.

I will never be made
into anything else again.
The dim shed where I was raised

still smells like me, my indelible
path back is still marked
with my hand. Black traces

that cannot be rinsed away
from the bark. As the trees grow tall,
the tar rises, as if to better see the way.