Sheila Black ~ Four Poems

Brave Women

I remem­ber just the assumption
we might any night die going home:
late night A train from the party
where we drank one glass too many of red wine,
our sil­ver shoes with the court-curved
heels too hard to run in,
and we accept­ed this,
so every delight had an edge
of poi­son, almond-bit­ter, as if we had
been raised on peach­es plumped
full of cyanide at the heart. Our fairytale
selves ever able to picture
the spot of blood that would not wash clean.
I knew Lynn’s friend Marion, who
dis­ap­peared in ‘87 only to be found
ten years lat­er in the tun­nels out by
Marcy Avenue. I am often amazed
how we paint­ed our faces, combined
our chif­fons and Converses, draped
our­selves in faux dia­monds and marched
out. One time, a woman attacked me
with a board punched full of nails.
Later on the street she could not remember
who I was and greet­ed me like a friend.
Over the years, we waved and hollered
at each oth­er across 107th Street. I nev­er felt
bad about it – you could see in her body
what she had lived through, and, despite
her threats, she left me my bank card,
took only the cash. The oth­er dan­ger felt
dis­tinct, and every­where, like air. One 5:00 am
on Ludlow Street, a man grabbed  me
from behind and only because I screamed so
loud the women work­ing night-shift at the bakery
next door came out and pulled me in.
Today, it is my daugh­ter who calls me from
Colorado Springs. She is in her car,
hav­ing been sur­round­ed, pulled at and hit,
as she tried to walk into Planned Parenthood
for her annu­al pap smear, the same clin­ic where
six years ago a gun­man killed two, wound­ed nine,
and still the men, their min­ion women, cluster
out­side to harass the women who enter.
As my daugh­ter speaks, will­ing herself
to breathe, I think of the young girls like her,
who walk into that build­ing every day.


A Whale-Like Singing

I will always live with the blue body,
blue baby who could bare­ly breathe and I
bury him inside me, espe­cial­ly when I
sit across from my son in a restaurant
or din­er – the kind of half-way point where
we tend to meet now that he has his own
new­ly adult life, and I find myself under
my breath chant­i­ng live, breathe, live
as if were I to stop the plane of his life
would spi­ral down into a plume of smoke,
as if only my atten­tion keeps it in air.
The name for this is PTSD and no wonder
my son pulls away, eyes me with alarm,
the fear that ris­es from my palms,
and I want to say “It’s okay, it’s okay,
I screamed, and you began to breathe
though it took three exchange transfusions,
you came alive just as I always knew
you would.” But that isn’t the truer story.
The truer sto­ry as I remem­ber was just
the being there. I had to buy shoes in
the hos­pi­tal gift shop and all they had were
size six men’s vinyl slip­pers, and they let
me sleep in the spare beds – an hour
here, an hour there — while I wait­ed to see
what would hap­pen: my blue child in
his blue incu­ba­tor – my shoes squeaking
as I walked the late-night hos­pi­tal halls
and that one time I went run­ning into
the NICU, chas­ing a hum­ming sound,
and it was him—he was like a whale, they
said, sound­ing so he would not be alone,
and I stared through the glass at his mouth
mov­ing out and in.



When my daugh­ter calls me weeping
because her boss will not forgive
her absence because of her child’s sudden
ear infec­tion, I flash back to the mom’s group
I used to meet in Hendrick’s Park and
how Vicki and I used to feel such rage
at the inco­her­ent lan­guage the oth­er mothers
used, which felt dimin­ished, or maybe
dis­hon­est, but real­ly was just like the language
we didn’t know any­more how to use for
what we were – all in the blur of a birth-room,
blood and salt, we’d turned lumbering.
vul­ner­a­ble, and derid­ed. We could feel
invis­i­bil­i­ty ris­ing from us as dew transpires
from a flower in the cold spring mornings.
We nev­er knew it would be so much like a war
or the ene­my would be across from us at
the break­fast table, now heavy with sighs
over what­ev­er it was we hadn’t done right,
which was mys­te­ri­ous and orac­u­lar and
appeared to change every time. As if we had
board­ed a train up a moun­tain to a well-known
holy site said to fill each vis­i­tor with a blessed
sense of belong­ing only to find ourselves
fac­ing a crevasse, clutch­ing a too-thin rail
with frozen fin­gers. Nor could we walk away,
bound by love for our chil­dren, which would
not be enough to save us from the prisons
with­in pris­ons the con­struc­tion of motherhood
meant for our lives. “To be a moth­er is not
the same as being a father.” I did not know
what these words actu­al­ly meant then or maybe
I did – the way Vicki and I squirmed and
couldn’t look the oth­er moth­ers in the eyes,
sneak­ing off to smoke for­bid­den cigarettes
and watch the smoke dis­ap­pear in increments,
a tiny par­ti­cle at a time.


Self as Last Call

To be like the swal­lows, building
nests of mud under the eaves of sag­ging houses.
To lay three eggs, hatch three chicks,
and watch one of them fail to thrive each time.
To be des­tined to fly fur­ther than a lifetime,
across a con­ti­nent, three oceans, until you cannot
even pic­ture the place you start­ed from.
To walk in snow until it makes you feel
warmer, and you lie down to make an angel
the way you did at six, a lit­tle paralyzed
by the too-vivid image of a body pressed
into the earth, hands raised as if fight­ing against
or strain­ing toward.


Sheila Black is the author most recent­ly of a chap­book All the Sleep in the World (Alabrava Press, 2021) Her fifth col­lec­tion, Radium Dream is forth­com­ing from Salmon Poetry Ireland. Poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Kenyon Review Online, Blackbird, The Birmingham Review, the New York Times, and else­where. She works for AWP and lives in San Antonio, Texas. She is a co-founder of Zoeglossia, a non-prof­it to build com­mu­ni­ty for poets with disabilities.