- Girlhood:In Cantos
For Audre Lorde (1934–1992)
The bedroom faced both patio and streetin an apartment on the second floor.Imagine a city in New Jersey.Sunset lured flurries of furry mothsto the lampposts, wings ignitingunder bulbs that burnt whitethen yellowed, by comparison with the stars.My mother departed for the swing shiftan hour before bedtime. In winter,her wooden heels made against new snowthe sound of cornstarch pinchedfrom the body’s crevices and rubbedbetween fingers.After bolting the doormy grandfather squinted in a corner,his pupils clouded with cataracts and worry.His hairline had receded to a vampiric pointdyed the color of an agate amuletworn for decades to rob evil eyes of their lenses.Catching the whites of mine in his bifocals,he opened the refrigerator, [End Page 137] scanned the gallons for a telltale pictureof the herds who were my wet nurses,and boiled two pints with grainsof Grenadian cocoa dust.
Swabbing the hives abloom on my collarbone,a doctor at the clinic gesturedthat so long on the bottle was enough.I became intolerant while cutting teeth,my canines drippings of paraffinfrom the five sallow candlesscrewed onto a birthday flan.To wean me from rubber nipples,Mamí traded a pamphlet of green stampsfor cobalt tumblers, setting one on the nightstand each nightbeside a can of soursop pulp for me to sip.Abuelo had not minded mesince falling from the front steps onto asphalt,drubbing his breast with a numb, arthritic fist.I watched him now on the sofa bed, swaddledin calico sheets, asleep yet blind to dreamsand deaf to the clamor of garbagemen,or so his prognosis was translated.
The year I erased my fingerprintslighting drugstore candlesI stopped reading the novenasscreen-printed onto the votives.As flames quavered behind the swarthy martyrs,Latin articles and honorifics dribbledover the letters of Yorùbá epithets.Joan of Arc, meet Changó.In school, nobody recited poemsabout the Dahomean warrior women [End Page 138] whose recruits plated their scalps with plaitsin the hundreds and fastened the tips with ribbonsfor the strangling of their sovereign’s assassins.The African continent was a chapter in science class,a tigress swollen with estrus;in English, a handful of porridge-jawed heroines,poets whose lungs had ballooned with the gasof discreetly self-cleaning ovens;in history, saintsfitted for a halo one dayand dunce cap the next,the helmeted Maid of Orleans called Judas, with breasts.Only in convents did the stepsisters of Godelude suicide and suitors, as if jumping over the moonwith the brooms that wives and witches had in common.
I missed the Caribbean in geographythe morning of first thaw.After her overtime as parish janitor,my mother stood as if on stilts,stilts tottering across rope;fatigue narrowed her irisesto the size of the papaya seedsthat her husband had spit out onto the alley,before he too left.She untangled my braids and combed straightthe pigtails rolled tight as tobacco leaves,then tested the water. Steam shot up,muting the purples under her eyes.The daily miracle: my curls meltedunder the faucet, my head grew doll’s hair.Scalded in the same stream that whitened our noise,we traded shouts but let our dialects drown:hers first whose accent was heaviest. [End Page 139]
Elizabeth Pérez is assistant professor of religion at Dartmouth College, specializing in religions of the African Diaspora. A historian and ethnographer, she is the author of Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions, forthcoming from New York University Press. Her most recent research project examines the experiences of transgender and transsexual people as religious actors in the contemporary United States. She has published poetry in the Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingüe, the anthology El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry, and elsewhere.