Rachel Nelson

The Crowd

After Kara Walker’s Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween

the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994)



Mothers, when you crowd together

I cannot hear you – you sound like waves.


Mothers, I have blood and water too.

I lift like rain misting off the road.


One mother says the water gathers at her thighs,

its fists bunched, and tells her who it eats


and who she’s eaten. There is no difference

between dry land and water but the story.


Mothers, there are so many of you

to enter the room of the body.


Who roots a man’s head to the ground

with her own head? Who gathers the flock


of her legs to lift herself up to a kiss?

Mothers, don’t leave me


in the grasses. My feet grow other feet.

My tongue cannot do what they ask.


One mother is rounded, a hulk, unhatched,

lifting another with thready arms.


One mother’s skin keeps the gray of the ocean inside.

Mothers, your feet will open


with so many stories – there are more shells

on the bottom in some places than others.


Each hilltop is an island.

Mothers, you will have to find a way


even if you don’t want to fly.

Which one of you reached the tree,


arm draped in moss and clothing?

Mothers, they’ll lift us and our brooms too


so they cannot see our feet on the ground.

They’ll bite us to taste the salt.




Where is that girl who rubbed lotion across her skin

like it held acres inside?


I left her in the wilting months

to tend skin with a softness that expected curtains


of corn to rise out of good ground. To touch skin with intention.

The grass was cool


above the baking ground.

Her collarbone stretched a long brown road


from here out of sight. Her hand on it

as though polishing


a good brown

cupboard door. She walked that road,


kept the intention of her skin

in her mouth


and moved with its words rocking

like wind blows leaves side to side. It will get cold


like a bow across the mouth. They will say

it is not okay to be


on the streets. Her feet will ask

Really? Ask Where is your mother? Will wonder


whether the sweater is enough to quiet the chill.

But then. She wore the sun


on her shoulder

like it bore flowering azalea, angel’s trumpet, daphne


that want light to make their dangerous honey, walked

without turning


as though there were a dog

guarding the shadow under each lifting heel.


RACHEL NELSON is a Cave Canem graduate fellow and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlas ReviewCallalooHartskill ReviewLittle Patuxent ReviewMuzzle Magazinepluck!, Smartish Pace, and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.