Collective Unrest


Four Poems by Tara Stringfellow

February 3, 2020


originally published in Apogee Journal, August 2016

Once in Atlantic City, after she couldn’t take it any longer, she picked up a bottle and sprayed mustard all over his shirt like silly string. He laughed a high, unsettling laugh in response. Shoved popcorn in his mouth and walking earshot behind her said she really must be a no name nigga from the North Memphis projects if she think she gon get anywhere with three babies no degree and a black face. People on the boardwalk didn’t know what to make of it. Some laughed. Pointed. Cupped hands over mouths agape. The women didn’t. They looked at the wife. Then at the stroller.

He gave her a black eye Easter night. Her first. She said he was a cheat jus like his black ass daddy and that’s when the fist came—unexpected, quick, soundless as a hummingbird. She rebounded against the peach-colored wall. Went after him with a butter knife of all things circling him round and round the dining room table that was littered with scraps of hours-old pork. The police officer was nicer than most. Let me sit on his lap and play with his flashlight while he took his notes in our kitchen.

My almost-ex-husband is always late. After another fifteen minutes, he walks in carrying his elegance like a satchel and looking as he always did when he wore that caramel wool coat, like John F. Kennedy. When he sits, I hiss out an angry whisper you know money is tight my check engine light has been on for months I’m at my wits end I’m using this refund for bills. The tax preparer kindheartedly pretends not to hear him call me a black bitch. Years ago we had a pregnancy scare. He fell asleep with his head on my belly talking to it about the Cubs and humming Sinatra songs. Angels cheer ‘cause we’re together he kept crooning. Over and over. I can hear my mother’s voice on the other end of the phone, “I told you never trust a white man.” I can hear my response. “No, mama, don’t trust men.” 

I walked into a hotel room in Washington D.C. and saw my sister, Kristen, all five feet ten of her, lying in some foreign origami pose on the floor while her boyfriend Kyle stood over her swaying drunkenly, leisurely like paper in the wind. The police officer, also memorably friendly, said I went after the boy’s neck like it was a barbecue rib on the Fourth of July but I couldn’t tell you what happened. All I remember was seeing my baby sister on the floor and wanting Kyle’s teeth in my hands. Remember when you damn near killed Kyle? Kristen asks. We laugh about it now, sitting on our back porch in Memphis. I pass her the bottle of rye whiskey I’ve hidden in my purse. Give her a playful jab on her shoulder. Still cracking up my sister says I looked like a bear ‘bout to claw his eyes out. We sip whiskey. No, I looked like mom, I say.

this woman

originally published in Linden Avenue Literary Journal, June 2016

my mother
sat still as stonewall
mustard in her hair
she was ten when she got her first black eye
some white man at the counter of a north memphis
deli fixed her with a square jab that sent her flying
knocked off her stool
separated from her mother
who sat next to her with ketchup
adorning her head in a blood crown

my mother was inconceivably calm
amidst the chicken bones on the floor
while whites screamed at her to go back
to the memphis zoo
she knelt there on her hands
and knees and tried to breathe
fought the blackness seeping into her vision
the dizziness trying to overtake her
she said she mouthed thelordsprayer

this woman asks me
for anything
i give it

me, receiving my first period

memphis, tennessee

men call it our curse
she says shaking her halo
but it is not a sin
to bleed for the world

she points at my opening

this is not of God
this is what we women
have created

this is called brave
this is called love

my mother coos
as she dampens a rag
presses it between
my thighs

Mary, did you have a choice?

my mother didn’t  
she packed our things adam too in her womb 
it’s ok baby she cooed hand on extended belly 
fled in the night with her children 
born and unborn. poor black beaten screaming into 
motel room pillows God you an angry God 
my knees are rug burnt from the love of You 

i wonder if the Lord ever asked you 
woman. warrior. mother to joan of arc & harriet 
the only true prophets i’ve known  
what you wanted 

i see you now, shaking your curls 
remembering your hand on your belly 
with each sharp step of the donkey 
searching the stars in a dark desert night  
for a sign knowing only this truth—  

if He wants a savior, this baby better be a girl 

Tara Stringfellow is a poet, novelist, and an attorney, originally from both Memphis, Tennessee and Okinawa, Japan. Third World Press published her first collection of poetry entitled More than Dancing in 2008. Nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, her poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Best Emerging Poets of IllinoisBest of the Net AnthologyJet Fuel ReviewMinerva RisingWomen’s Arts Quarterly, and Apogee Journal, among others. The author was Northwestern University’s first MFA graduate in both poetry and prose. Her debut novel Memphis was recently acquired by Penguin Random House and is due out Spring 2021. 

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