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.