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we ask mama-n-em, “where is the motherworld?”

By Destiny Hemphill

after Ruthie Wilson Gilmore and Evie Shockley


it’s in, not at. in the whistle & hiss, the steam of your breath as you chant
                  we ready (we ready), we comin (we comin) atop of a jail

building in ruins. yes, it’s in your breath & in the never dwindling
                  kindle of your fingertips as you reach out & touch

the hands of your kindred, the living & your dead, who keep you here
                  right here where we offer ourselves as the remains of the remaining

future. (keep breathing. don’t stop now). yes, in your breath
                  & in your hands that fend off, defend us

from the state that craves our death, seeks to snuff our breath
                  lick the bones. chew the sinew. & in the same hands tending

the fire, tending to the tendons pulled in flight, to bedraggled roots
                  of razed hawthorn trees, to the composting of our

present. tending to the dream that what we need & what others have believed

                  to be found nowhere can be found in the now here, like

in those moments you said, “rent shouldn’t exist, so here’s a little money for it”
                  or “don’t got money for rent, but take

all the food you want” or “don’t got food, but wrap yourself up in this”
                  or “don’t have anything to wear, but here’s a card. been thinking

of you. & a song written for you.
                  & a milkweed found by chance &

the paper you’ve been wanting so you can write your mama a letter to say you’re okay”
                  or “here’s a map of the hidden

ways to get back safe.”

we’ve always already been molding & shaping
                  spinning & folding, birthing & sharing

can you feel it? in our breath & in our hands. between us, we’ve got
                  the motherworld, the whole motherworld in our breath & in our hands.




Listen as Destiny Hemphill reads "we ask mama-n-em, “where is the motherworld?”."

Added: Friday, September 18, 2020  /  Used with permission.
Destiny Hemphill
Photo by Love Önwa Photography.

Destiny Hemphill (she/her) is a chronically ill ritual worker and poet, living on the unceded territory of the Eno-Occaneechi band of the Saponi Nation (Durham, NC). A recipient of fellowships from Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, Callaloo, Tin House, and Kenyon Review's Writers Workshop, she is the author of the poetry chapbook Oracle: a Cosmology (Honeysuckle Press, 2018) and the collection motherworld: a devotional for the alter-life (Action Books, 2023), a two time finalist for the National Poetry Series Prize. Her work has also been featured in Poetry Magazine, Southern Cultures, and the Academy of American Poets' Poem-a-Day series. She is currently serving as the 2022-2023 Kenan Visiting Writer in Poetry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Image Description: Destiny Hemphill, a brown-skinned Black woman with a short cropped afro, is seated outside. She is looking directly into the camera with her head tilted to the left. She is wearing a black body suit and burnt orange skirt. Green foliage surrounds her.

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