in the back yard of things past telling
closing the space
he taps apart her innerthighs
like a sow’s
and she knows
she’s not here
So Familiar He is with Parting Her Brown Legs
Again, as if praying. On my knees. Hands locked together in petition. My body rocks with his prods, his moves. Still as you can, Anarcha, he says. The bowls of two pewter spoons are pushed in my body, yet they are kinder than his hands. He names it speculum. I lean my left wall against the left spoon, away from the wound. I believe this time I will bear it. His hands. He begins stitching with strips of catgut. Some moans curve into wails, saturating the wooden walls with something that won't wash out. His frustration cuts the air between us. Then his wife is calling his name. The spoons are pulled out quickly, a quick suck that leaves me breathless. He tells me he will bring back silk to stitch me, after lunch. I uncurl dizzily on the bed. I no longer bother to cover up.
Days before the dead fetus came by forceps. Worked into the vagina, the metal shifted for its own comfort, then clamped around the infant’s head, dragged itself and the stiff corpse down the vaginal walls. So much force that the wall between the canal and anal cavity was severed, leaving an open wound in the vagina. Blood for days— from the uterus, still leaking afterbirth and tissue—the tears, heavy trauma, as yet unstitched, allowing urine to pool in the vaginal canal, creating an odor unbearable to the senses, though even with this, soon the doctor is able to perform the surgeries unmasked, undaunted, so familiar he is with parting her brown legs and shifting his weight between, between, the odor filling the space that separates them, binding them together when it enters his nostrils like a desperate ghost.
I Could Never Disremember the Fireflies
I caught fireflies for hours in the evenings
with my girl-cousin, Irene.
I can see us now,
just running around in our bare feet
while the stars turn on
Sometimes when we cupped a firefly,
we’d catch a bit of blue night with it too.
We had to peel the evening off the firefly
before we could put it in the jar.
A few good words with Kwoya
BVS: These poems are so important in addressing what feels like an unknown/unspoken history of using black women as medical test subjects. It was painful to engage in this work—a necessary pain—especially as a black woman myself. The language and imagery does not let the reader look away from the violence done to the women’s bodies/psyches and I’m appreciative of that. Can you tell us a little about how you came to write about these women and also how you cared for yourself while researching? How did you process and deal with that ancestral trauma?
KFM: Whenever I am about to enter a new phase of my life, I look to those who came before me. I value the lived experiences of others, and more specifically, I value their stories. In 2010, when I first heard about this history, I was not yet a mother, but I was considering it. It was all I could think about really—what the process would be like and how it would change my life. Since the women I studied were also mothers, their experiences became a companion to my own as I entered matrescence.
Unfortunately, I don’t know that I intentionally cared for myself while researching. I knew their experience affected my own, but I also knew it was vastly different. I saw them as my aunts, my teachers, my elders. I respectfully sat at their feet and listened as long as I could. When I grew too tired, I walked away. This is probably why it took six years for me to write . One obvious way it affected with me is in my attitude toward the medical profession. I grew increasingly distrustful of doctors as I researched while experiencing pregnancy. A pregnant woman often becomes only “a body” instead of an individual within the medical community. Great disparities still exist in the medical treatment of black bodies vs. white bodies. Of course, one way I processed this ancestral trauma and my own experience was through writing.
BVS: There is something so poignant in the last poem of the trio, “I Could Never Disremember the Fireflies,” something that makes me think about dichotomy, the beauty and tenderness that can (and so often does) live beside deep pain. I feel lifted by that short and powerful poem in a way that feels healing. How do you choose what poems go together? What kind of literary families do you try and build with your work?
KFM: “I Could Never Disremember the Fireflies,” was a poem I enjoyed writing. It came simply and it was easy to revise. The purpose of is to communicate that the women who Sims considered his experimental subjects were human beings. I chose catching fireflies because it’s an experience I think most people can relate to. I also wanted to contrast the doctor’s voice and his perspective of their bodies with these moments of humanity.
Mend contains poems that describe the experience of the women in relation to Dr. Sims, poems that reflect their experiences with motherhood, significant others and their past lives, and one section of the book where Anarcha addresses the doctor and holds him accountable. In a book that could easily fall into a category of black pain, I intentionally allowed joy to enter. Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and the unnamed women were not merely slaves, or victims. They were complex gorgeous beings, like you and me. My hope is that the arrangement of voices and perspectives will not allow the reader to look away.
BVS: Who is your favorite slept-on black writer?
KFM: Jerriod Avant, hands down. He’s a writer from Longtown, Missisippi. He’s working on his first collection and hearing his work for the first time absolutely blew me away. He’s recently been accepted into a Ph.D. program for English/Creative Writing at the University of Rhode Island. His work is Bomb-Fire. (I had to make up a word to describe it.) [Editor's note: Bomb-Fire (with that intentional capitalization) is such a good general descriptor.] Look out for it.
Kwoya Fagin Maples is a writer from Charleston, S.C. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and is a graduate Cave Canem Fellow and a Home School Lambda Literary Fellow. In addition to a chapbook publication by Finishing Line Press entitled Something of Yours (2010), her work is published in several journals and anthologies including Blackbird Literary Journal, Obsidian, Berkeley Poetry Review, The African-American Review, Pluck!, Cave Canem Anthology XIII, The Southern Women’s Review, and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review. Her most recent poetry collection, Mend, was finalist for the AWP Prize and is forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky. Mend tells the story of the birth of gynecology and the role black enslaved women played in that process. This work received a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.
Maples teaches Creative Writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and directs a three-dimensional poetry exhibit which features poetry and visual art including original paintings, photography, installations and film.