The Secret Garden
I was ill, lying on my bed of old papers,
when you came with white rabbits in your arms;
and the doves scattered upwards, flying to mothers,
and the snails sighed under their baggage of stone . . .
Now your tongue grows like celery between us;
Because of our love-cries, cabbage darkens in its nest;
the cauliflower thinks of her pale, plump children
and turns greenish-white in a light like the ocean's.
I was sick, fainting in the smell of teabags,
when you came with tomatoes, a good poetry.
I am being wooed. I am being conquered
by a cliff of limestone that leaves chalk on my breasts.
She wants to hear
She wants to taste
change. She wants
pride to roar through
the kitchen till it shines
like straw, she wants
lean to replace
tradition. Ham knocks
in the pot, nothing
but bones, each
with its bracelet
The house stinks
like a zoo in summer,
her man sleeps on.
Robe slung over
her arm and
the cradled hymnal,
she pauses, remembers
her mother in a slip
lost in blues,
and those collards,
It is Sunday, day of roughhousing. We are let out in the woods. The young
boys wrestle and butt their heads together like sheep--a circle forms;
claps and shouts fill the air. The women, brown and glossy, gather round
the banjo player, or simply lie in the sun, legs and aprons folded. The
weather's an odd monkey--any other day he's on our backs, his cotton eye
everywhere; today the light sits down like the finest cornmeal, coating
our hands and arms with a dust. God's dust, old woman Acker says. She's
the only one who could read to us from the Bible, before Massa forbade it.
On Sundays, something hangs in the air, a hallelujah, a skitter of brass,
but we can't call it by name and it disappears.
Then Massa and his gentlemen friends come to bet on the boys. They guffaw
and shout, taking sides, red-faced on the edge of the boxing ring. There
is more kicking, butting, and scuffling--the winner gets a dram of whiskey
if he can drink it all in one swig without choking.
Jason is bucking and prancing about--Massa said his name reminded him of
some sailor, a hero who crossed an ocean, looking for a golden cotton
field. Jason thinks he's been born to great things--a suit with gold
threads, vest and all. Now the winner is sprawled out under a tree and the
sun, that weary tambourine, hesitates at the rim of the sky's green light.
It's a crazy feeling that carries through the night; as if the sky were an
omen we could not understand, the book that, if we could read, would
change our lives.
Excerpted from Selected Poems by Rita Dove. Copyrightę 1993 by Rita Dove. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Vintage Books, divisions of
Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this poem may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.