Category Archives: Poetry

CLARA’S AIR

For thirty-five years, February has been National Black History Month.  Celebrations, rallies, and special events happen across the country in schools, parks, churches and other venues.  I wrote the poem, CLARA’S AIR, on a warm spring evening four years ago and it was published online by Janet Riehl on her blog site www.riehlife.com that summer. To commemorate the sacrifices, endurance and accomplishments of Black Americans, I offer it up again.

 CLARA’S AIR

 Old Mom-Mom told her,“it’s a track without a train,

a railroad running north and, sometimes, underground.”

In the dead of night,with more stealth than wealth,

they slipped onto the barque of a Louisiana swamp.

Three dark panthers melding into the shadows’ thin cover,

where a white man at the helm did hover.

Fear and quiet made the slither of pole on green water

seem to shout upon the wild river.

Near to dawn, they put in at land, there to await,the next helping hand.

In a slimy cave they rested, in Mom-Mom’s lap, Clara’s head softly nested

Sullied water and moldy bread,a wormy apple or bright berries,

it was on these they fed.

Night two or was it more?

Gators snapping as carefully they stepped in mud and gore.

Sounds of tiger growls rent the air,

when the tree snake reached down to dust Clara’s curly hair.

Dawn found them on a sandy beach,

here to hide and keep watch all day against the sound of dogs at bay!

When Clara’s feet began to bleed, Mom-Mom tore her turban

to wrap those tiny feet beyond the scent of any breed.

Night after night, they traveled on. Hiding again at first light,

always searching for guide or clue to carry them from all they knew.

Until Clara wondered at seeking more, hiding from the searchers,

 their dogs and gun, when hope itself had nowhere to run.

Hiding in cramped attics or soured hay, behind a secret wall,

under a bed or up a tree, caused them often to pray.

A thin soup, a crust of bread, an ear of corn to chew, where came the next meal, they seldom knew.

Drained of hope by pain and sorrow, their next stop caused them to burrow.

To Illinois-land they came, trackers’ hounds at their heels.

A house, a barn, a cellar, promised respite from their flight.

Thin, tired to the bone, with blistering feet and soul,

they fell into a restless sleep.

Awakened too soon and pressed below ground,

no light by which to see,  the shifting dirt drifted down.

Clara, Old Mom-Mom and the others, too,

huddled against a sudden outcry,when a critter ran across a foot,

fear doubled and took root.

On and on they sat in silent dream, thinning air adding to their sleep

sending them into a well too deep.

Clara shuffled close to Mom-Mom’s ear,

“Air’s there. See the mole mice at they’s mother’s teats?”

“Hush, child. You wants the mens to hear?”

Old Mom-Mom’s voice faded,her lungs stretched thin.

“Y’all gots to smell the air,” Clara wanted  to scream.

Tugging and pulling, she made Mom-Mom’s face fit the hole.

A gasp, another and then a whisper,“I declare, child, you’s right.

Dem moles is drinkin’ they’s mama’s milk, sure as we kin drinks the air.”

And so the time passed, each had the luck

to suck of Clara’s air until the last of the slave-seekers left.

The lid popped open from above and the whites declared,

“A miracle from God” that all still lived.

But, Old Mom-Mom and the others knew, it was Clara’s air

that saved the day and them, too.

FEBRUARY SOULFEST

Early February and the rains have stopped for a bit.

We race over the emerald hillsides

Watching feather clouds fan across the topaz sky.

Wildly strewn daffodils and fluttering acacia make my heart jump.

Gauzy yellow mustard stirs by the acre

Blanketing fields left fallow until spring.

Baby calf and lamb shins sink into the slurry mud in mama’s footsteps.

Skunky perfume of road kilt rodent

Disappears in gusts of ocean blown wind.

 Point Reyes Station announces itself with early morning coffee and muffins.

 I check at the bookstore for Larken’s book

And find it shining on the locals’ shelf.

 We move through cypress forests and historic farmland preserves.

 The ocean glistens in the distance and calls us

 To follow the risky trail to McClure’s Beach.

 Storm hammered nuggets of gold and silver line the long trail.

  Fool that I am I persist in the dream and hope

  For today’s peace to echo out to sea and beyond.

 We search through seashore debris to pirate our treasures.

 Baby brush and bottle nipple, soccer ball buoy,

 Tattered rope and plastic doodads float on sand.

 In the distance, splendid waves roar up on giant rocks,

explode

and return to their mother sea.

WHITE GIRL, BLACK HEART

 WHITE GIRL, BLACK HEART: SUMMER ‘59

On that first Sunday, Annie dressed in green plaid,

                With Peter Pan collar, shoes, and purse all white.

                                Curly golden hair streamed down her back,

                                                While her blue eyes tried to hide her fright.

It took three buses to cross the town,

                Until, at last, she saw St. Mark’s steeple,

                                In a neighborhood of worn-out mansions and left-behind people.

Tawny browns and ebony blacks, mahogany and coffee-laced-with-milk

                Were some of the colors meeting her at the church door.

                                In satins and silks or cotton worn thin,

                                                Big-hatted women and crisp-suited men were all going in.

                                                                Children nudged and pointed at Annie, until stilled by a command.

Heavenly light showered down from stained glass

                To scatter more color across each yearning face.

                                Thundering piano and joyful choir sang of Grace.

There, at the sanctuary door, Annie heard Mrs. James demand,

                “How come you to hire that white teacher?

                                It’s my turn to lead our summer session.

                                             ‘Sides, we’s a black church now, Preacher!”

His answer came as he caught Annie’s eye,

                “Like I’ve been saying for months now,

                                White folks are fleeing,

                                                Black folks are seething,

                                                                When it should all be about believing!”

Annie slid into a pew nearby and studied the program without really seeing.

                What have I done?

                                What a horrible blunder!

                                                I don’t belong, I don’t fit in.

                                                                I’ve never had a close Negro friend.

I never marched against the drum to plead freedom for anyone.

                I know we’re equal but I don’t know much more.

                                Nothing of race or culture or custom.

                                                Little of strife or poverty or shame.

                                                                My family came first cabin from across the sea,

                                                                                Not as plunder or property.

 

What can I do here, a college girl, and a white one at that?

                I know the church and the Bible pretty well.

                                I can lead songs and follow the lesson, offer up prayers,

                                                And even wipe a child’s tears

                                                                 But of life, I know so little.

Lost in reverie, Annie’s soul began to stir to rhythms surrounding her.

                Song vibrated from wall to wall, people began to shout their Amens.

                                Her spirits lifted as Annie sang out, and looked at her neighbors.

                                                In God united they stood and swayed to the beat of a belief understood.

Grasping hands across the aisles, prejudice and fear were set aside.

                 Here was a place, a people and a task

                           Where Annie would do as good as she was asked.

* * *

It is hard to imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. at age 82, the age he would have been today if he’d escaped the assassin’s bullet in April 1968. What would he think of our condition on a “return visit” this week , if such were possible? I’m not certain of his response but suspect it would be a mixture of joy and regret. What might he celebrate or denounce, do you suppose?

How would he challenge us to extend the lessening of hate and intolerance in our world? What can we challenge ourselves to do?

 I’ve adopted minute actions: reduce my exposure to media portrayals of violence so as not to condone its use; monitor my language and expressions; and speak up, in whatever small ways I can, against the degradation of humanity.

 I’ll be interested in your comments.

               

Sometimes of a Christmas Day

 A sleep-in, all cuddly and snug, with fresh coffee to clear my head,
Then it was off to the valleys, the mountains and coast
Where clouds scurried overhead like imaginary ghosts.

Winter in valleys and pastures alike found trees bare with mist rising,
For the rains had just stopped and the sun shone in full glare
Spreading a pearly softness throughout the air.

A car, here and there, appeared on the road, each destination unknown.
New calves and lambs on hillsides were grazing
There in the long valley called so greenfully amazing.

Down from the hills, onto the plain, impromptu streams poured great froth.
There, Old Watson School since 1856 has kept watch,
Past the lambs wool store and the blooming broom so Scotch.

Soon came Bodega, Victorian in every windowpane and bright light,
We paused to remember all those years long ago,
When the field wasn’t Landscape but land for food to grow.

At Highway One, the big houses and eucalyptus trees so out of place
Are rocking to rhythms from the wind unheard,
And the little bay town, so busy in summer, lies undisturbed.

We stop at Salmon Creek, shed ourselves of the Blue Noise, and take to the trail.
High tide had the ocean climbing the steep beach,
Tossing foam and debris within easy reach.

I graze the sand for treasures, hoping to remake a mobile of my youth.
Instead of odd trinkets of metal and glass,
I am left with an old tire, plastic garbage, no brass.

Winds grab at my long hair and I feel the cold sting of the Pacific calling,
Reminding me of another time in this place
When pregnancy and youth set the pace.

On the road again, following the steep winding path of One’s devious way,
Comes a hot brandy hard won, and famed Timber Cove lunch
Where the swans have long since left, the whole bunch.

Just another tourist, watching the surf beating on the rocks below,
Counting egrets, crumpled old fences and tin barns,
Until the day shrinks and of nighttime it warns.

Up Old Ross Road, away from the Russian Fort so historic,
We climb through the tunnel of wet redwoods and oak,
Giant ferns and huge gulleys all asoak.

Waterfalls emerge, jumping from ledge to ledge and surprise us some more
As the mountains close in and cup us in their grasp
Little of daylight breaks through as we pass.

Suddenly the land jumps to open nature’s door, bring us to rolling meadow.
Here is the sun, brilliant sky and deep crevasses.
Here hang the silvered grey Spanish mosses.

The black ribbon road continues to weave its way through the mountains,
Past the old stage coach stop with its wondrous old view,
Past lonesome country retreat and family homes, too.

Like Dasher, Dancer and crew, we whirl onward this Christmas Day.
Weathered and tumbling down old fences have one story to tell,
And so do the white orange posts from fiber optic hell.

The land levels down near Montgomery School and brings us to Cazadero
Where the redwoods were carved from the soil,
Bringing men hungry for the chance to toil.

A few hardy souls can be seen as we go, but mostly lights and windows glow.
From the smoke in the chimneys now haunting the air,
We know crackling fires are set before many a chair.

We leave the mountains and forest nearly behind as we enter River Road.
Home buildings multiply and cattle dwindle
Where the Russian River churns like thread on a spindle.

It’s homeward we’re bound, as the towns rush by and collide,
Pushing us past Northwoods to Korbel’s gate,
Now vineyards, now river, now lagoon in flood state.

Sometimes of a Christmas Day, things happen to renew our life.
Such was the year in two thousand and three,
When Hubby and me set out for Sonoma County to see.

Arletta Dawdy
December 25, 2003