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  • Poems from Sanctuary
  • Robin Coste Lewis (bio)

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Wilde Woman of Aiken. J. A. Palmer, 1882. Cabinet card. Courtesy of Steve Turner, Los Angeles.

[End Page 34]

The Wilde Woman of Aiken

I am not supposed to beBeautiful. I am notSupposed to sit

Before the observant eyeOf a sunflower. I am incapableOf having a voice

Like a robin's singingOf springtime's newborn impatiens,Its balsams and touch-me-nots

Crouched so low to the ground. Vases and I are not permittedTo dally. If I were a name,

It would be Wall Paper. My hair is made ofA million breathing paisleys.

I have listened to you think aloudAbout a five thousand yearOld world

That does not exist.I am sitting hereIn the open,

And you are there,Dripping beneath your darkVelvet, waiting for the light

To reach you.I have wonderedWhere you really live,

Why you cannot hearAll the glass inside your syllablesSlide off the table [End Page 35]

Whenever your mouthOpens and is then closed.The story has not even begun.

The only thing left insideMy hand is my own quiet hand.I am the fourth sister.

My florets stand togetherAt golden angles. My headIs packed with eager seeds

Crisscrossing in spiralsOne hundred garlands long.It's over now.

About my waist, darkAnd bright: there is a satin sashThe color of sun

Warmed eggplantStill fetchingOn the vine.

YouCannotPrevent me.

In 1882, Oscar Wilde toured the United States. Many American critics chastised him for his theories on beauty, including comic strip artists and photographers. One photographer, J. A. Palmer from Aiken, South Carolina, seeking to disprove Wilde's aesthetic-that anything could be beautiful-staged what he believed to be a satirical photo shoot, choosing objects he found to be inherently repugnant: a black woman, highly patterned fabrics, an ornately upholstered chair, a sunflower, and a face jug, placed prominently on a table. The sunflower was a reference to Wilde, as were the patterned fabrics. As for the vessel, Aiken had a small population of slaves who worked as potters. Many art historians believe face jugs from South Carolina were made by these slaves, and hence, Palmer's probable reasoning for including it in the photo. [End Page 36]


There'd been a field, a farm, hobos asleep in a chicken coop,    white people whose dogs chased us everyday on our way to the pool.        I never knew what, if anything, they grew. Never knew of a harvest.            Never saw a thing begin as seed, or sow its way to plant, flower, fruit.

There was a shack, I remember that, and an old house with an old lady.    She wore a dingy eyelet dress, and paced her porch dry        carrying a shotgun or a broom. Flip-flops, Blow-Pops, Click-Clacks,            Cracker Jacks, we barked Dog Talk with teeth still muddy and black

from Eat the Peg. Soft lime salamanders, fingers a vivid tangerine;    cow hooves grafted to arid grime; date palms with roots so determined        they sucked up all the water from the other things with leaves. We tore through her            property, a whole band of us, day after day, unaware of the endings

our bright forms would bring. There wasn't just one, but two    farms, across from each other, and another one, long down        the street, past the pool, next to the Victoria Park Golf Course            where we never saw one colored man walk into.

Farther out, surrounding us, there were other farms too,    which had been worked, but were not working. There was the pool,        a liquor store, an old house, the golf course, a koi            farm, our new neighborhood, the bakery from Hawaii,

then the landing field for the Good Year    blimp. You could live here for years and never        understand: were you rural, industrial, or suburban?            We thought we were home, but our cardboard

was just a slender venture on Negro sprawl.    Before that, it was law: we could not own property        except in certain codes: South Central, Compton, Watts,            where the...


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