4 Poems

Ama Codjoe


Visitation in Carolina

I smell his mother on him, the milk
coming down. She chooses to appear this way,
pregnant, dizzy, certain of his name.

We have yet to be naked together, to shed
clothes or tears or human speech, so his mother
comes, a dress over him, a caul. Her dark

hair is a lampshade; the light inscribes
a moon at her feet. Each man who has ever
been inside you, she says, was first inside

his mother. Then she bears her breasts
like a young boy might: without shame, pride,
or sentiment, like a collarbone or a faded scar.

She chooses to remain this way: half-dressed,
drenched in radiance—as pregnant women
often are—hair thick with the son whose name

I find myself repeating. Then she asks me
to read to her, and though there’s light, it’s not
enough to read by. She is the light there is.

Morning, I say. She smiles faintly. By then
it will be too late. He resembles a dolphin sounding
as she places my hand under hers. He circles

my nipple with his tongue—she is flickering
now, exhausted. Helplessly, my eyes
flutter close. I try my best to watch her go.


Like an organ coiled
             deep inside or a lasso
of lightning and high
                             noon, the rattlesnake
traveled the length
             of my spine, sunning itself
inside me. Then death—some
                          call it god—drew a diamond
on the snake’s back,
             and marked my chest
with feeling. How godly
                          the two of us were, shaking
what was hollow.
             Dirt stained
the front of my blouse.
                          I felt venom
rise in my ears. I heard
             the snake molting,
turning my skin bronze
                          and flawless. This is how
I became a woman,
             sun rattling
across my back,
                          dust glittering my tongue,
the snake’s tail whirring.

Self-Portrait with Branches of Pine

Here I am, holding one more

mirror. This time smoke, winding

                                    like a river. I close my eyes,

not because the smoke stings—it

does—but because it’s a way

to examine myself, like looking

                        at your face in a river certain it is not

            your face. The smoke combs

like a mother through my hair

or like searching the shoreline

for shells unbroken. I sing to myself

and the smoke drags my voice on its back

            just as the breeze heaves it.

                        Here, in my half-singing,

I forget how to slow drag

and watch the pine trees creak

                                    and sway. Here, I am

my own twin. I rest my cheek

against my cheek; I barely move at all.

Self-Portrait with Afro, Fall 1970

Sister Mary Joseph taught us to respond in unison: an outward sign 
of an inward grace. Blue jays loosen the plaits in my hair, damp
from last night’s shower. Angela is underground, changing locations
in the middle of the night. My hair is growing, growing. Scars and marks:

Small scars on both knees. Eyes: Brown. Hair: Black. Mine glows
from the center of my chest, like Jesus’s, except it isn’t a heart, it’s a fist
the size of a heart. I love the fear my afro strikes in some. There are
WANTED posters everywhere: in the post office, at the supermarket.

My brother likes to tell the story of me as a girl, towel-wrapped,
tossing my “hair” from side to side. Flaunting my sadness
unwittingly. Grace is a fist inside me. I’m sometimes mistaken
for the sister I don’t have. Morning light picks through my hair

like a wide tooth comb. Before I am beautiful I'm in the hairdresser’s chair,
perched atop two phone books, holding my ear. My reflection
in the bathroom mirror is a landscape painting. Oil on glass. Fall,
New York City, 1970. My face the night Angela runs through.