- Black-eyed Susans, and: Blood, and: River Jubilee, and: Honeysuckle
In Tennessee, I spot them all over, rimming ditches, clustered in understory,
their button faces obeying skyward, floret-skirts breezed through,
trembling. What you pick to claim who loves you and who loves you not.
First flowers trudging up June hills— what my father calls nigger daisies.
How he’s learned them— cursed like a weed, too common
to be handsome. Flagrant canary rays swishing around a head
violet and brown. A flower that roots anywhere—in fields
exposed to blunt sun. Thriving despite rocky soil, drought,
threatening to overrun other native plants. In a lifetime
my father’s had to choose the boxes for himself, from Colored, Negro,
to Black, Afro- and African American. No one true name for things. [End Page 122]
It was an Englishman observing flora in the wilderness
who named the daisy—of the aster family, Rudbeckia hirta, after a friend—
nigger daisies, Indian Summers, Yellow Girls, Black-eyed Susans,
among roadside rubble and dust, grown up from disturbed lands.
Rivulets down the generations. The lineage of crippling
bunions, gap between the front teeth, firecracker fits— all the things I hate
about me. Murmured from body to body, a hushed murderer’s tributary, Great-great
Uncle Red, rust-briar bearded, leveling a gun at another man. Maybe all hearsay.
It’s not in the blood anyway, but wound deeper down. Messages hammered into cells. My father [End Page 123]
the first degrees in the family— night lab work, tissue details under microscopes. He photographed
me on Ivy League campuses to make them my history. Bloodlines no longer
the full story. We never knew what dammed in my mother. Her body without warning
quit flushing its toxins. Traits I’d be tested for—the factors that overflowed.
After the spring rains’ glut and drain— the adults drove to the river with nets and buckets tethered to pickup beds.
At the docks they peeled off their socks, unbuckled shoes. The men rolled up dungarees and sleeves over the knobs of elbows and knees.
Women gathered dress hems into knots above calves to keep their shifts from sipping the current. Nothing to hurry: the fish
straggled in the shallows, coal-dust catfish, striped bass, and the glass of sunfish along the bank. A convergence— [End Page 124]
men and women came twisting down woodstrails from the bluff until river mud sucked at their feet. Nets swooshed over fish bodies,
they’d twitch and writhe until slapped into buckets, and still more, flip-flopping in the shallows. The wet, mouthy odor
of water, river grit spangling ankles. The adults crooned I’ll be damneds as they met the flesh shouldered up on careless waters.
No one had to lead me to the odor— sweet essence of honeysuckle blossoms on the fences. Butter and white petals. I’d pinch the stamens
and pistil, suck slick the lobes and lips with my tongue. The nectar free for the taking, galore on the vine
after black plastic failed to choke back the plants. Blowsy during the day, and at night honeysuckle leaves quaked, moth-littered,
wings trembling at the flowers’ barrels. Not even my lamplight lured them to my bedroom window when I read in bed.
I was a solitary kid, who heard voices, the signal of a migraine coming on. The best guess for the pain was I thought too much. A worried [End Page 125]
girl—sensitive, shy, too eager to please. I couldn’t have been more hard on myself then. My awkwardness
displayed in the mirror. I’d judge my undressed reflection—that it might never match the beauty someone’s hands would seek.
Such a smothering voice that I can’t say ever left. My intimate ambition— to flourish in the right hands: could someone
recognize where to find me? I mean myself, the one I knew might unlock with touch— who would let me stand dumbly
with my nakedness, the best I had to offer and see nothing more than what I was. Oh, couldn’t it be sweet
getting what you think you never...