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To the Black Virgin Mary on a Steeple in Greensburg, PA

By Destiny O. Birdsong

-- for the Charleston Nine, June 17, 2015     

            Or maybe you weren’t. Whenever I’m frightened,
anything can become a black woman in a granite dress:

            scaffold for what’s to come: blue lights exploding
like an aurora at the base of the bridge;

            or the man’s fists guiding the steering wheel into the turnoff,
where we can talk more about my mouth,

            what I’ve done to get myself in a situation like this.
I’ve been apologizing for my body all week:

            to glares trailing me through the cardboard graveyard
of Wal-Mart; for my nipples straining in the stream

            of the dashboard vent; to the television screen,
the boy in his striped jumper

            shuffling between a quarry of rooms.
His bangs as fine as cornsilk, his blank stare

            its own indictment: how dare you survive?
Maybe because the night was still damp and young,

            the man’s hands still steady on the wheel,
my skirt still tucked beneath my thighs,

            the cruiser unlit, unmoving on the shoulder,
and your face, holding vigil with immaculate gall.

            Mary, what other souls have you baffled
in this swath of green that unfurls like a flag,

            makes me think of heartland and revolution,
of Harriet, delirious beneath her grandmother’s quilts?

            I belong to no other country, though my bones    
are like branches blown into the road: I’m cleared

            by gloved fists making room, and only the mothers
gathering for intercessory prayer are grieving.

            But their tears are my tears: as dirt-soaked and forgettable 
as the smell of rain in sunlight. Mary. What children
            have filed from beneath your stained-glass robe
like a procession of afterbirths deflated with shot?

            Even their organs, having lain too long
in their bodies, and their bodies too long between pews,

            cannot be saved. What daughters have collapsed on your
nettled steps, tired of the penance they’re always paying? 

            I kneel at your altar, but like the woman
whose breath turned to salt, I can’t stop looking

            behind me. What shadow slips beneath your dress,
darkens the crucifix of your unlocked door? 
            What new outrage lifts a gun, adjusts the crosshairs
and slouches past you, aching to be borne?


Added: Friday, September 1, 2017  /  Used with permission.
Destiny O. Birdsong

Destiny O. Birdsong is a poet and essayist whose poems have either appeared or are forthcoming in African American Review, Indiana Review, Bettering American Poetry Volume II, and elsewhere. Her critical work recently appeared in African American Review and The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature. Destiny is a recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize, has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and BinderCon, and residencies from Pink Door and The Ragdale Foundation. Please visit her website.

Other poems by this author