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  • The First Morning
  • Martha Modena Vertreace (bio)

Dust rises like smoke over the pier,    over my father dangling his feet in the water,   Seagull Beach, dodging moon jellyfish pooling in the shallows.   Me, squirming under his cool hand on my burned back,   the scratch of sand. White breakers on the green surf.   White wings overhead. Their shadows mark us as he tents   my head with a newspaper hat. I read the rest   over his shoulder.

     Where indifferent hands   slice open the Earth, under Duane and Chambers Streets   two blocks north of City Hall, New York City, they find her   waiting for three centuries, maybe forty years old, maybe younger,   holding the child who died to leave her.   Under Polaris, the Watcher who never sleeps,   a night burial, forbidden prayers black tears hymned, Do what the spirit say do.

Do what the spirit say do.   Breathing long enough to take each other’s face to the afterworld,   bone follows bone; and flesh, flesh. [End Page 34] No glass waist-beads as a bride-price,   no white-toothed cowries to lead her across the ocean.   No stone laid, no burial maps X’ed with crossbones.   In the press photo, just wood, coffin nails, shroud pins— You got to do what the spirit say do.

  Nothing to be afraid of, he tells me, shivering in the dark breeze   now come off the bay. No one can die when a swelling Rose Moon   melts the ground. He tucks the paper under his arm.   Singing La Clarinette in creole, singing Frère Jacques,   he carries me in the brown moons of his eyes   to the carousel, to green dragons waving their tails     at dazzled children, breathing over all     an even, smokeless flame.

Martha Modena Vertreace

Martha Modena Vertreace is a professor of English and poet-in-residence at Kennedy-King College, Chicago. She is author of Second House from the Corner, Under a Cat’s-Eye Moon, and Oracle Bones.


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