Saturday Dec 02

McElroyColleenJ Colleen J. McElroy lives in Seattle, Washington where she a Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington. Editor- in-chief of The Seattle Review from 1995-2006, McElroy has published nine collections of poems, most recently, Sleeping with the Moon (2007), for which she received a 2008 PEN/Oakland National Literary Award, and Here I Throw Down My Heart, (U of Pittsburgh P, 2012), which was a finalist for the Binghampton University Milt Kessler Book Award, the Walt Whitman Award, the Phyllis Wheatley Award, and the Washington State Governor’s Book Award. Winner of the 1985 Before Columbus American Book Award in poetry for Queen of the EbonyIsles, she also has received two Fulbright Fellowships, two NEA Fellowships, a Jesse Ball DuPont Distinguished Black Scholar Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. Recently, her work has been featured in The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry, Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry,Best American Poetry, Black Renaissance Noire, The Best American Poetry 2001, and online at Torch and Many of her poems have been translated into Russian, Italian, Arabic, Greek, French, German, Malay, and Serbo-Croatian.


The Family Album

call it blood memory for I am the only
one left to identify by name the ancestors

I am the only one left of the women
who sat around grandmother’s table
and wove the stories of who and where
who knows the half of it and when

I am the answer to the question
my mother’s sisters swallowed:
What will you do with that child?

I know now that I am here to give
voice to tongues never silent
and doors closing too quickly

I am of the age where death comes
easily and visits often in those little
obit notes of passing reminding us

how we’ve neglected dear ones
now relived through fading pictures
stuck to crumbling pages

I buy tickets to places I may never visit
spend hours trying to remember
if the image stuck in my head has origins

in a dream or some foggy night
slipping past almost unnoticed

I am the last female of a family
of women who wove the fabric
of stories into doilies and slip covers

I am the child with sparrow legs
sock heels stuck halfway in her shoes
drinking the last of metaphors left
in teacups on the table unattended

A Sounding in the Woods

the way the family told it Papa’s brother Jackson was the trouble maker—said he turned bad after their daddy was kidnapped by Johnny Reb—conscripted they said but everyone knew he was taken in the war between the north and south because he had a way with saddles and rigs—because he could shoe a coltish horse and set it loose before the nails cooled down—everybody knew Johnny Reb needed a man like that free or slave to keep the horses halfway fit—knew they didn’t care that taking him meant leaving behind two scraggly colored boys—said they came looking for him in broad daylight the story goes—came galloping through the brush until the dry leaves rustled like a crackling fire and the hounds itched to be let loose—a sounding in the woods that told them something was wrong—and even long after the war Jackson would bolt at the least bit of movement in the inconvenient light on a dark road that led them out of town—Papa went north Jackson went west leaving behind the one thing that told it all—when I found the long bullet in the middle drawer under Papa’s shaving bowl he told me it was the one that misfired when Jackson pulled him out of the river—said it creased Jackson’s hat and his too—said he kept it for good luck the way some folks kept a rabbit’s foot—said by rights this belongs to Jackson—I turned the thing over in my hand—all that copper light like a bright button—I wondered if Jackson had another with him on days he rode the rodeo days he found himself cornered in South Dakota or his face on a poster in Wyoming—Papa said they never thought to load the bullet even when white folks paid them a few coins or corn meal mush and clabber milk for a job that took all day—told me that bullet was the one thing they owned outright—and even later even after I learned about firing pins and gun powder learned a bullet was a blind thing that knew no man I’d look at it and wonder what luck it held to keep Papa safe a little while longer

Twilight Sleep

The bearing of a child was henceforth to be merely a time of twilight and of sleep
—Twilight Sleep: the Dämmerschlaf of the Germans

that last July before she died
my mother visited every morning
in the twilight of dawn—
she came quietly into my room
I felt her weight on the bed
in my half sleep stage and like her
giving birth to me, no other sensation—
a small indentation where she perched
and spoke as if in mid-conversation
her voice spidery as the penmanship
she’d learned as a young girl
the flourishes and swoops of a fountain pen
from a time past when looped cursives
adorned great documents - my mother
spoke in cursives quoting Shakespeare
for any question I’d ask from age three—
that July she sat on my bed
and whispered as if by memory
her lament soft as a lullaby—
I heard only the tone of words
punctuated by my name and
the whisper of her weight
as she turned to leave
the space closing behind her—
I thought she said: I have to go
and strained to hear the lock
catch at the front door
as I awoke alone to silence