from Drapetomania

from Drapetomania

Drapetomania: the purported illness experienced by escaped slaves who were suddenly obsessed with
the idea of escape and freedom. It’s a term familiar to those who know the slave narratives by Frederick
Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, or Hannah Crafts. Those who know about drapetomania
would know the likes of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, and perhaps Sherley Anne
Williams’ novel Dessa Rose. I must admit when I read Cynthia Parker-Ohene’s collection that I received
the manuscript without a title page, but I was completely moved by this idea of “dysmembering” throughout
the manuscript and how it conjures this idea of dismantling remembering, and not flinching at the
dystopian circumstances that black people encountered in the American South. It felt like there was
a haunting and a steady gaze that carefully pauses and works through narratives and scenes. I found
myself thinking of the mythological tone in Colleen McElroy’s work, the historic scope of voices in
Dolores Kendrick’s Women of Plums, and the subversive, defiant language of vernacular speech. These
poems make me think not only of the entwined histories of people fleeing the harsh yoke of slavery, but
of how a woman like Lucinda can yearn for and know freedom.

—Tara Betts, author of Break the Habit and 7 x 7: kwansabas
February 21, 2017
Brooklyn, NY

potters’ field

in the throat of crownsville, maryland
beneath the filament of pine and tobacco
reedy blue asters outline the old prison cottage
for colored women
                                   held in parch and punishment

                                                                                                 forensics is memory

a sash of light from the monocacy river arcs BELOVED     while maddish seasons dysmember
her station hulled beneath the muck               turned livid    on the edges of things like vindictive
weeds or nervous trees                     a caste even unto death
                                                                                         as though bone may copulate with bone

segregated blood

we women sit
in bald yards
among the ozone dried
plaiting brittle
hair red and patchy
at the side door
yardbirds peck perversely
at shimmers
from the back
of someone’s throat
we no longer read the water
its brutish blue is hemlock
the nigrescence
of the Mississippi
is sullen and lowdown
from our quarters
the day smells of
cinnamon and corn cakes
mixed with the whiffing hack
of car batteries
on balustrades
of tract homes
we pick at the scorched
cayenne and tubers
slap at the muddy slaughter
of buttercups and bean fields
miss(is) the old settler’s
beastly whiteness on black
the lengua of cotton and auctions
compelling baths cannot repair
the industrial birth
yoked in idiotic trees
the shackled earth faints
fears the vanished view
the dying bell is prepared
we women look for poultices
to catch babies from
cloven wombs from
infected nights
in tupelo’s
culm and crop
in the looking
we discover
the absence of

black persists

Black steams the current cosmology without a biblical machine/ a paradox spasm/ politics within a banjo binds the dishonest imperative/the ground treks beneath the seabell/the ancient symmetry/ a spur persists against its opposite/tongues scandalize the union/speaks the theater of colored ways/ interprets the lisps of the sorry demise/ water fountains disordered colored/ how will the river tame slaves/slaves buried underneath the constitution/the past flowers into fire/ a lie overwhelms a correct inheritance/boats imprison black within the hired angle/the century betrays colored/allocates a rabid crowd inside a persistent settled memory/the truth belongs to persistence before persistence changes memory/every skin illustrates memory/ the retired rage reposes against the hardy slue/ trees pulse in the rose rain/ can this illegal contract purchase trees/hanging holds trees/trees collapse beneath the terrible orbit/ bone disturbs light a gloaming in the assaulted geography/why won’t hate smell his warped horror/tongues misinterpret a seen monopoly/night deletes/night corrects shade/ night teaches shade after the immense dawn/ forced beds clang under the sick age/sun changes the unwise crop/ memory tools the oar

A Day Of Grace

On the morning of Grace’s death
I saw her at the community latrine
Showering her baby girls

At Makola Market #2 buying
Coal and a miniature packet of rice beneath
The burning war clouds like red lanterns on a promenade

They were looking for water among
the vernal pyre of rot, the roux of human salt
In the ambivalent all(ness) of war and freedom

Grace once told me that there was no photograph or
memory of her in a camera with the Eye of Ra shining
on the pluck of a small African girl in the moorlands,
A grace of a girl

Later, I heard from my neighbor, Aleke that Grace had been disposed of
in the knotty fields where she searched for burnt water
Identified by the stains on her skirt

When her children went to the fields to collect her
The government told them, “sorry”
“It was the word sorry you used when you have burned a pot.”

Editor’s note: We’re proud to begin partnering with the Durham-based publisher Backbone Press to feature work from their latest chapbooks, including Cynthia Parker-Ohene’s Drapetomania, which is now available for purchase. We’ll have more work from Backbone, as well as another Durham chapbook publisher, Bull City Press, in the months and years to come.

Cynthia Parker-Ohene is a Hurston-Wright Fellow with the HurstonWright Foundation, attended as a Vesle Fenstermaker Scholar at the Indiana University, Bloomington Writers Conference, awarded the Zora Neale Hurston Scholarship at Naropa University, and a Callaloo Fellow. Her publications include: Ecotone, Crab Orchard Review, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry, and Tuesday: An Art Project, among others. She has an MFA from the Saint Mary’s College of California where she was the Chester Aaron Scholar of Creative Excellence.


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