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  • Jennifer McCauley

The PdS Black Voices Series Presents: JENNIFER MCCAULEY

Loriella is Dead

Yesterday Loriella choke-cried into my phone,

saying we black gals got to stick together, hip to hip

since the world is a leech sucking at our night

necks, and I said girlIhearyou and I could hear

her voice cleaving clean down the center and

I remembered this was the girl who kicked a blackboy

down the stairs of Litchfield Towers, and burned my books

in the dorm yard when I told her I couldn’t love her like that–

With all-the-time love, with only-her love

and she said give me sweet words then and I said what sort

and she burned my books again, the next night, on the dormhall yard

and told me my skin was the wrong kind of tawny,

that I was too soft-voiced to be a real black girl, that

everything I said was too long for listening.

Yesterday, she was talking and her voice got soaked with

ghosts, of men who sexed her bad and women who

gave her lies of love, and I remembered the other nights

she called me, when we were young and tighter-skinned, and

she talked about firearms and gun barrels and her

Auntie’s arm- burns and she said she’d never

do what her Auntie did though she thinks about

what it’d be like to go away, with no man or woman draining her

dead, to go away by her own hands like Auntie did that

night when we were playing Scrabble on the dormhall

floor and she got the call that said Auntie is dead

Auntie left the room.

Yesterday, Loriella thanked me for love, said I was okay and

she knows her head is cut-up and we agreed that every

head is cut-up and every little black girl head is a little

tired and today her Mama calls me and says

Loriella is dead, and asks me what I said to her and

I said nothing, just that we black girls got to stick together

hip to hip, heart to heart, and her Mama says

how come you didn’t try any kind of talk to make

My Girl live and I listen to fat air on the phone and her Mama’s

cold cries, and I imagine Loriella’s neck, life-broken, on the floor.

I think of its fleshy folds and clavicle, her pink mouth,

how it pursed and pouted and spoke fear and I think of what

I said every day when we were young: What do you want

me to tell you? and how I wondered

what words could do. I tell her Mama that, as

I choke-cry, “What could words have done?”

A Mother to Her Star

Player hadn’t eaten anything that week, but people. Girls. Ladies. Men, the little ones, with soft voices that dip or trill. He’d had his fat full of their love. He’d stuffed all their smiles, church-hot, into his sinner mouth, a mouth that had rarely said “friend” until he grew long and deeper black. Until “friends” gave him fistfuls of cash and secret kinds of love. Their love was always shivering for sex, his was body always giving off lavender smells and “maybes.” Still, this body, night-colored, silky as fox belly, was starved from a hermitage of faces, from slippery communities of skin and mouths. He was glowing red with all that maybe-sex and boy-girl-love. So much so that he forgot the way his dark body was supposed to feel, that it was moving weak. That body was his, usually. He knew the way its wrist-bones flopped down, how his knee-skin got blue when the winter wind lashed and cut. He knew how his breath looked in the cool (white), and that the black smudges underneath his eyes disappeared if he pressed on them mean enough. That body: the sort to make a girl sit forward and lick her teeth, smooth her hair-part. The sort to make the right boy tuck his phone in pocket and bite his top lip. That body, he knew, was near-dead.

He knew what his Mama, real-dead, would say if she could see him stumble to his car after he danced the double-shift at the Shadow Bin. She’d say look at your bones, how hollowed-in they are. Bet you think you bright? He’d tell her something like I’m a full man now, and she’d say you don’t know the way a full man should be. Y’ain’t holy, nah. He’d say something like, This is my holiness, Mama. This body is love, and my bread is just talk, and she’d say, well that ain’t enough food to get you through one day.

If Player told his pals about his weak-feelings, they’d whoop. They’d been hollering his name before he started his winding hip-bones in half-circles for love. Ever since they realized he could stride into any funky-hot club, saying any mean thing, and walk out with any cream-skinned honey he wanted. They wouldn’t see he was choking on all this love, hanging in quilted shreds from little ladies’ windows. From men’s black bedposts, from thin boy’s hangers.

Mama would say I ain’t gonna watch you die, just because you think heaven is all the laughing folks you meet. And he’d say, yes, yes, yes, but Mama, I ain’t never had a real friend since now. Now, that I’m big-chested and sexy, no longer a child, the world is gnashing teeth for me. They are crying for me, Mama. So I will stuff myself with their hot-shallow-admiration until I’m blessed by their tight, armed-love.

He could see his Mama. Watching him live, sad, in black corners, sick from people, starving from too-much sex and loud grinning. She’d say his real name. She’d say someday you will remember the days when you were alone, or with only me. Those days were as eventless as the first day in Eden.

Brother Invisible

When Timmy came out

he was bedsheet-white and Mami

thought, maybe he will look like me, but then

his skin got pan-colored and toasted dark,

and now he is blacker than our black Daddy.

If you see Timmy now, he dances

like the negritos in the clubs that find me

when I’m standing alone, but he is better

than all the boys, and Mami knows this

and she is glad.

When Blessed came out, he was red and

never changed colors. His eyes were knit-shut

and his foot-heels didn’t twitch and Mami

said he will never look like any of us, and she

cried when they put Blessed’s red body in a little box

and she said he will never look like anything and

she is right.

Sometimes, I imagine my ghost brother, what his

color would look like in the light if he were not

red or in a box. I wonder if he would dance in clubs

like the darkboys who talk to me when I stand

alone or if he would get fat or long-boned or

what name he would pick for me when we

are shoving shoulders, or playing pick-up

or waiting for Mami to take us home, and I

wonder what it would be like to have

a new-colored brother call out my name

and say, let’s go home.

A few good words with Jennifer

PDS: Blackness is often measured in color, something that you address both in “Loriella is Dead” (“my skin was the wrong kind of tawny”) and “Brother Invisible.” How do you see these poems pushing against or speaking to constructions of blackness?

JM: That’s a really great question. My father is an African American with Midwestern and Southern roots, my mother was born in Puerto Rico, and I’ve visited and lived in various places in the States and overseas. I’ve always been interested in how blackness is defined by different cultures. When you’re born black-looking in America (or anywhere else around the world), you enter so many conversations that have been going on for hundreds of years without you. Your skin color is politics, projection, pain, history. Often, you carry these expectations of the “type” of black person you are in relation to black, white or other non-white communities. For both of those poems, I was interested in exploring how color subtly and directly influences relationships. “Loriella is Dead” is about two black women who have a tumultuous friendship, in which blackness bonds both girls but is also used, in moments of anger, to undermine their relationship. In “Brother Invisible,” a Latina mother wants her biracial son to look like her because she wants to see her culture physically reflected in her children. The narrator of the poem is interested in what her dead, colorless brother would have looked like if he’d lived and what sort of brother he would have become. I wanted to give a snapshot of how those conversations look inside and outside of the American black community. When I was writing these poems I also cared a great deal about examining death and loss, which are universal human experiences, regardless of color.

PDS: Your first two poems are written with enjambment, while “A Mother to Her Star” is written in prose blocks. Does a poem tell you what kind of formatting it needs to be successful, or do you start with a form and fill it?

JM: Awesome question. It depends on the idea, the prompt or what mood I’m in, really. Sometimes I’ll write a poem or piece of fiction and I’m fine with the formatting on the first try. It’ll just feel right. Other times, the format or genre changes when I revise. For example, “A Mother to Her Star,” was originally a poem with enjambment but I didn’t like the line breaks. I realized I just wanted more space. I revised and found I had more room to explore the voices, characters and themes when I used prose blocks.

PDS: I must have read “Loriella is Dead” a dozen times without stopping. The space that this poem builds is so resonant, its sound waves level out at a pitch too high to be comfortable in my ears, and yet, I am too used to its elegy. What’s the last poem you couldn’t stop reading? What’s the last poem that lead you to familiar pain?

JM: That’s kind of you and thank you for engaging with my piece. I’m a fan of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction that strikes an emotional chord with me. The last poem that just killed me was “Dinosaurs in the Hood” by Danez Smith. I’ve always been a fan of Smith’s work, and I’ve seen him brilliantly perform “Dinosaurs in the Hood” at AWP 2015 and Reading Queer’s “Paris is Still Burning.” I’ve also seen the poem on the page and taught his stuff. “Dinosaurs in the Hood” is a relentless, musical piece that tackles so many difficult subjects. The piece is funny, it’s throbbing with pain, it’s a terrific criticism of the movie industry and black stereotypes. But, man, when you get to that refrain: “No bullets in the heroes. & no one kills the black boy/& no one kills the black boy/& no one kills the black boy…” those lines just sing, and that song hurts like hell. Also, Claudia Rankine has cut up my heart with Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. I’m totally cool with her doing that.

Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Missouri. She is also an intern at The Missouri Review, an associate editor of Origins Literary Magazine and a book reviews editor at Fjords Review. Her most recent work appears in New Delta Review, Literary Orphans, Deep South Magazine, The Boiler, Rain Taxi, and The Blue Lyra Review among other outlets.

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