Poetry
Spring/Summer 2018

Three Poems

by Chet'la Sebree

Photo: ​​The main house at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA.

Paper Epithets, December 1802

 

 

Wooly-headed concubine—

a slut as common as pavement—

I am an instrument of Cupid,

 

a coast of Guinea wench,

his yellow strumpet.

 

Copper-colored Sally, I am

an industrious and orderly creature, 

housekeeper.  Somewhere between

 

mahogany and greasy yellow,

I am not the sage of Monticello.

 

His flaxen joy, his sable Helen

his soot-foot bride-to-never-be

Mrs. Sarah Jefferson, only 

 

black wench, negro wench,

wench Sally, never 

 

the person that I am. 

Dusky Sally, February 1817

I prefer night to twilight, 

the crepuscular more haunting 

than when cold’s calm swells to hush.  

 

Next to heat of hearth, I coax fire 

to the syncopated chorus of children’s snores,

rhythm more regular than the chaos of their auburn hair.  

Fire flaming my face, wool warming my blades, 

I contemplate how the blaze changes

            —crackle of yellow-blue-hue calling you—

how nothing escapes flames’ lick of log 

‘til it embers the orange of autumn, 

cools to ash. Tonight, it holds a heat 

my face can barely take

           —soot-sting of eye—

though I like being on the brink of needing 

to turn away. Some nights I want to 

 

let my hand succumb to see what I become

           —winged in song—

always expecting transformation to scorched log 

burning red at my core, lick you cannot predict,

flame sand and water cannot tame. 

 

Often, I leave the worn wood’s groan, 

resting heads of the haloed, enter the night,

listen to the dark crisp of a pre-dawn lawn,

dress making waves of frozen blades. 

With hot mug of cider, I steam the air 

like expelled tobacco

         —a damp you can taste—

enjoy the space between scald and frost. 

 

In star-latticed sky, I hear my niece’s cries, 

feel my mother’s hand on my fire-warm face, 

smell the lavender she used in her vase, 

taste everything James once made: 

fried potatoes, pasta with cheese, ice cream.  

My favorite: Oeufs à la neige

          —meringue floating in crème anglaise—

the way soft sugar would dust my upper lip 

before a sip of Muscat, a split of champagne.

 

On nights like this, I miss spring morning’s kiss 

and dew droplets, the laughter of my sons 

as they play fiddle in the pavilion—pads of fingers 

pressed against string of sheep, catgut stretched and 

twisted to bear the weight of vibration. I miss the grin

of Harriet’s skin-glisten when she breaks from willing 

wool in cool day’s light. But I know that I would then 

 

miss this, the cool dark in which they were made, 

like I miss feeling the ocean of us in which they swam.

I made them all myself, you see—sweeter than the sweetest 

snow egg, purer than power used to top them.  They keep me 

from answering fire’s call like the deep hum from which they come, 

remind me pain is a slow blossom—a heat that eats from within.

Photo: ​​A hearth in the South Dependency at Monticello, where Sally Hemings likely lived

in the early 1800's.

Contemplating “Mistress,” Sally in 2017

 

 

I was so much more because I was so much less—

list of lewd comments and epithets.

 

I was currency, chattel, animal

when he came to me mammal—

 

craving the odor I secreted,

biting my flesh with his teeth.

 

He would have had to put me first

to have named me in earnest—

 

scared of how someone with my skin

would have been seen by his kin.

 

Others took the liberty—made me 

the Dusky Sally of drawings and songs.

 

None of them to ever know me:

girl, child, woman, mother;

 

confused, scared, alone

bone to bone 

 

with the only man 

I’d ever know—

 

in a teen dream fantasy

where I chose

 

to return to land I called home.

Not imagining daughter turned stranger,

 

dust of children abandoned on a mountain

to which I cannot return,

 

that I would become 

reconstructed 

 

versions of someone I don’t know

in converted closets, movies, poems,

 

because a sliver of pigment

kindled his ardent,

 

because I let a child make a decision

for this extraordinary privilege.

Photo: Items resembling those in slave quarters

on Mulberry Row at Monticello. 

Photos by Chet'la Sebree.

Chet’la Sebree was the 2014-2016 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry. She is a graduate of American University’s MFA in Creative Writing program and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Richard H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Guernica, Gulf Coast, and Kenyon Review.

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