Thomas Wentworth Higginson

writing to his wife, Mary, August 16, 1870

“Small like a wren”–indeed.
“Hair like a chestnut burr”–yes.
“Eyes the color of sherry”–perhaps,
difficult to ascertain, she seemed to float
into the room, materialized rather,
her light shawl flaring behind.
One eye acknowledged me,
the other looked askance, her angle of vision

resolute if wayward, rather let me say–incorrigible
and, I begin to suspect, both singular
and absolute.

Back in my room at The Amherst, what I recall,
am struck by, how fiercely fragile, skittish,
as if I should breach some perilous etiquette
if straightaway I addressed her or broached
any common subject uncircuitously,
how easily spooked.
Remember your uncle’s Indian mare
that even still barely tolerates a bridle,
the bit foam-flecked
when pulled from her mouth?

My dear, I must check the glass.
Are there hoof prints on my brow?



The Helen Poems

The One Story We Tell

When I finally locate Mother
among the old folks in the day room,
all soft in their chairs, when I stand over her,
mouth puckered and sunk,
bosom sprawled in her own lap, I kneel before her
and touch her arm. She brings her dull
her listing gaze to mine. At last, I thought,
almost falling where I crouch,
here you are, helpless,
Smack, smack to kingdom come, rattle
those three teeth in their gourd, spit
her maiming words back: no sport,
no sport in that. Besides,
I wrote that poem already, years before I knew
life would have its way with me, too.

Most of us have one story we tell. Oh, we might shine
its shoes, buy a snazzy book bag, new crayons,
but when you flip through the album, the same face
grins from the white grid, hopeful, more or less.
What I want is for someone to snatch me from the flames,
beat out the fire. When she holds me and I whimper
it hurts she murmurs I know, baby, I know.
That’s not a metaphor. Someone did that once for me.
Helen held me with her singed brown hands
fifty years and more. Last Friday she died,
about 7 p.m. Her sister called to say
Helen wearied, that’s all,
looked around – here
is a good enough place. This is far enough.
Though the fire’s ash and scars fade
my mother still knows who I am.
Look how she smiles.

The Helen Poems

Wind chill factor nears zero.
My throat is raw. Milk warmed with honey
comforts and the memory of you
not rushing me
to drink it down fast.
My mother’s surrogate general – your duty
meant enforcing her rules,
but you hadn’t the heart,
let me off the hook warning,
“Why do you do like that, honey?
You know it just makes your momma wild.”
One time, though, you didn’t cover for me.
She found you crying (Spit in my face.)
and hauled me out
to know the reason why. I spat
because children know about power,
cried because you were sobbing.
Maybe that’s what being black means
in a small Missouri town in the 50’s,
that and having to drive all the way
to Cole Camp for a dentist
who’d drill your teeth.
I’m guessing, Helen,
by what your mother had to leave you,
two dimestore hankies you cut in fourths
to trim an organdy apron
to serve my mother’s dinner guests,
rosy scallops along the white starched hem
over your pressed black dress,
bending with the silver trays,
“Thank you, Helen.
You may serve the coffee now.”

I never knew your mother’s name
nor saw her when we drove you home,
across the KATY tracks by the shoe factory.
She moved slow, tender, I know
by the way you let me hang on your skirt
while you ironed, sang and ironed.

If Mother and Daddy weren’t there
you and I ate together, side by side
in the kitchen nook near the hot water tank.
It was warm. You were pretty.
More yielding than Mother, you sang
the long afternoons. I pretended to color,
then later, to read.
Songs drifting on summer’s heat from another room,
some without words, scared me
you might not come back on Monday,
might not return from Blueberry Hill
or wherever you and Earl went.
Then you left him,
drove away with someone else.
What came together in my grief –
sex meant losing love.
Cross my legs and hope to die
for years after. Got lucky one night
in St. Louis, Helen, I loved a man sweet
and calm as you.
My body took me from there.
One time I asked had I been bad as a child.
“I wouldn’t say that,” your voice soothed
over the years, honey from the rock.
Same old question no matter the words.


I admit I’m a sucker for black women
of a certain age and heft. Because of you
I expect they will care for me,
hum while they iron,
beat out fire racing up my leg, with bare hands.

Imprinted on you, I was ready to be lulled
by Sweet Honey in the Rock, leaned toward the lead singer
reaching down for the notes, her momma finding a way
when there was no way, though she’s darker than you
or my memory of you, I was ready.
She’s the age you were back then,
the age I am now, but still I thought she’d rock me.
Hadn’t you scolded last time I called?
So what did she mean by saying
after the song about her momma
that the difference between white women and black is black
women don’t have the problem of wondering
how much can they do? I wondered does she hate
those of us who can pass through white
(men) and do you, Helen,
or is it just me hating
that part of myself with the problem of knowing
I can assume an Anglo-Saxon name?
Is the part of me wanting to be rocked
the same part that might have the name fixed
the same part still asking you to clean up?
The one who goes on wanting to be rocked
goes on despite wanting.


Last night in a dream I truly was your child —
brown eyes black braids brown skin small.
I stood eyeing the white man’s white shirt
over his fat ole belly.
I would have gone around him
but there was only one way.


My sons paw through the heirloom dresser,
solid honey maple, spill my treasures
from the little drawer meant for collar stays and gloves –
all the this and that I mean some day
to glue in the wooden box, five sections,
in which Sarah sent me teacups from Japan,

an assemblage like Jos. Cornell and more so,
glued outside and on top, organic, inspired
by my younger son’s sculptural collages.
Burrowing, my boys hold up the silver disc
from a necklace Quinn sent from Iran,
yellow feathers from a warbler, a wishbone pin,
my mother’s Jewish Book of Days with an outdated yahrzeit list
in her cryptic script. “What’s this,” they demand,
taking apart my love of useless things.
“From Helen,” I explain. “Part of the present she gave me
on Aunt Dee’s confirmation. Knowing me,
Helen could anticipate my jealousy.”

They understand and I remember
unwrapping a small zipper bag of soft quilted cotton,
Provence print, burgundy and yellow
(By then Helen no longer cleaned white women’s homes.
She managed Domestications, a well-appointed gift shop
on the Plaza in K.C.),
and stuffed in the corner, a hard lump rolled
in white tissue, a ceramic box, inscribed “Je t’aime
adjourd’hui plus qu’hier mais moins qui demain” on the lid.

The quilted bag frayed along the zipper.
The hinges of the box gave out.
The lid I keep in my keeping drawer
for these moments with my sons
or late at night when my husband sleeps
and I walk room to room through the house.


So much happens year by year –
when I call, late December, on your birthday.
“How can it be,” you marveled
the year you turned fifty-eight,
the year I would turn forty.
Once you called out of a starless night,
mid-November – should you marry
a certain gentleman who is so kind?
It had been some years since you woke
to find Charles dead beside you.
Now his daughter’s moving to Seattle
with her babies, and what do I think.

Last August I called – Mother to be released
from the hospital, would you come
for a week to help her and Daddy,
it would make us all feel better having you there.
“Law, child,” your knee, your eyes, your own sister’s health.

Hanging up, I talked over arrangements with my sister.
Everything settled, I asked if she remembered, being older,
where we stayed during Poppa Jake’s funeral,
with Miss White or Mrs. Kirkman.
Sister asked do I remember when she told me
to spit at Helen. “Why?” “So I wouldn’t get in trouble.”
was all she could say.
Sisters can tell you about your life,
things no one else can know –
saving things – and it happens over coffee
when you’re making arrangements.
She told me to spit at Helen.
We stayed at Miss White’s.


My father died. Mother’s brain is strangling her mind,
disease clamping her synapses one by one
and fistsful all at once. Still she knows you, Helen,
each brown gentle aide by your name,
or as my sister says, “She’d know you in the dark.”
Last night your voice quivered on the line. Would I mind
ending more fruit? Just released from hospital
only citrus tasted good.

I croon a sort of lullaby, one by one the songs
I sang my father, some without words,
calling you back from Blueberry Hill.


“You girls better listen to me, now.
You can’t wait. Once a house is empty word gets around.
By the time you make up your minds to gather and sort through
all your parents left – someone will beat you there
and help themselves. And don’t you look down your noses
at those paintings either, silver, the crystal and linens, the lamps
your Grandma Deb bought in Italy. ‘I don’t live that way, Helen.’
What does that mean? You put them by, you keep them.
You don’t know, your boys will marry and want them.
That’s your heritage. You were brought up with all that.
Don’t tell me another thing about it.”


The obits, when all is said and done, how we’ll find out
though we asked Oscar and her sister ‘Ginia
to call if we could help, just let us know.
At last the circle they draw around Helen
will draw the line. Nothing I can do but wait
for the dog to bark when the paper hits the pavement,
too late too late,
what I heard that time a doe leaped into the road and there was no way
to stop, how I felt opening the car door to go look at what I knew I’d find.

So weak when I called, she asked me to write instead, asking
her way of telling what I am to do, am to do –
then I can read it over whenever I want.


Oscar died, a heart attack, lucky, before the cancer
gnawed him through.
I can’t speak of him yet, but wanted you to know.
Talk about something else.

Spirea by the stone wall like Judge Hays’ high hedge,
my boys whooping as they rise to the hoop,
feisty Greta and how she makes us laugh.
Good, and those pears, honey,
nothing else stayed down, but those pears
were real sweet.


Helen’s right, the breakfront fits my dining room fine,
the one important thing she wanted each of us to have from home,
the one Grandma bought in Japan, curved glass door and beveled side panes,
ebony panels with scenes of pilgrims making their way up rocky golden ledges
to the orange pagoda where you’d expect sages would meditate. Instead
a smiling man flies a box kite over a bramble blooming, perhaps an idiom,
a reference to some legend a curator might interpret for the audio tour.

The prized breakfront from Grandma’s Brush Creek apartment in Kansas City,
I can see where it stood, the far wall of her dining room,
where her elegant half-dressed body was found,
the fabulous breakfront, shipped to my mother in Sedalia
until we dispatched her possessions, arrived at my door damaged in transit.
All I could do, take the insurance money, restore what could be,
“insulting the damage” so new ebony adheres,
the gilt edge a tad wavery, hardly noticeable if you didn’t know to look,
but he’ll tell me, Burgess will, when he finds the right gold to even the edge.
He’s asking around, has it posted on
And her painting of a Dutch interior seems to widen my dining room wall.
In the corner of my dining room broken china lies stacked,
Mother’s trousseaux shabbily packed,
deep-white encircled by a 22-karat band, porcelain so fine
your hand’s dense shade waves when you hold a plate to the light.

Some day I’ll make a sequence from the four least damaged plates,
(re)constructing my mother’s passage from the lawn in Omaha,
a girl between her brothers, swimsuits wet from the sprinkler;
through courtship and young motherhood to her civic duty phase;
and the last plate — her Alzheimer days, a montage of all the other
broken plates in high relief. I need the right glue
for that assemblage, strong and translucent all at once, and then what,
what will it mean I kept everything, damaged and intact, made something else
of all those broken pieces if I can’t tell Helen and she doesn’t say, “I know,
baby, I know.”