Selections From Walking Back Up Depot Street: Poems

Walking Back Up Depot Street

In Hollywood, California (she'd been told) women travel
on roller skates, pull a string of children, grinning, gaudy-
eyed as merry-go-round horses, brass wheeled
under a blue canopy of sky.

                                                    Beatrice had never
lived in such a place. This morning, for instance, beside
Roxboro Road, she'd seen a woman with no feet wheel
her chair into fragile clumps of new grass. Her legs ended
at the ankle, old brown cypress knees. She furrowed herself
by hand through the ground. Cars passed. The sky stared down.
At the center of the world's blue eye, the woman stared back.

Years revolved, began to circle Beatrice, a ring of burning eyes.
They flared and smoked like the sawmill fires she walked past

as a child, in the afternoon at 4 o'clock, she and a dark woman,
past the cotton gin, onto the bridge above the railroad tracks.
There they waited for wheels to rush like the wings of an iron angel,
for the white man at the engine to blow the whistle. Beatrice had waited
to stand in the tremble of power.

                                                    Thirty years later she saw
the scar, the woman who had walked beside her then, split
but determined to live, raising mustard greens to get through
the winter. Whether she had, this spring, Beatrice did not know.
If she was sitting, knotted feet to the stove, if the coal had lasted,
if she cared for her company, pictures under table glass,
the eyes of children she had raised for others.

                                                      If Beatrice went back
to visit at her house, sat unsteady in a chair in the smoky room,
they’d be divided by past belief, the town's parallel tracks,
people never to meet even in distance. They would be joined
by the memory of walking back up Depot Street.

She could sit and say: I have changed, have tried to replace
the iron heart with a heart of flesh.

                                                     But the woman whose hands had washed her,
had pulled a brush through her hair, whose hands had brought her maypops,
the green fruit and purple flowers, fierce eyes of living creatures--
What had she given her back, that woman, anything all these years?

Words would not remake the past. She could not make it
vanish like an old photograph thrown onto live coals.

If she meant to live in the present, she would have to work, do
without, send money, call home long distance about the heat.

Minnie Bruce Pratt

The Other Side

Men flirt in the silvered mirror, eyelids, shadow-
wings. The dance-floor red-blue spotlights shine hot
as lantern glow. At showtime, Beatrice works to know
who is woman. The pumping dancer, gripped naked
by spandex at the crotch, could she hide a resting cock?
Her breasts insist on homage, thrust at every mouth.
Beatrice holds up crisp dollars, twist into cleft, sweat,
is rewarded by a look: I deserve everything I get.
A lady with beaded breasts caught under bronze net
lip-syncs a torch song, languid hand full of taxi money
to carry her, still dancing, lanky legs, past boys
idling outside, a fist of baseball bats, to prove her man.

A crowd circles the stage. Dark and pale faces blaze
above what runs fiery toward them, like kerosene spilled
from a kicked-over lantern. The spirit goes this way
and that, like rainwater shifts on a clay dance ground,
stepping from one sunken footprint to another. She watches
their mouths, the people about to kneel and drink their desire.
They will lick burning water from the dirt. They will rise up
bold in a body they have never worn.

                                                          The emcee jokes:
Get to be as old as me, have to decide if you're a he or she
scolds her niece-nephew, her nephew-niece, which is mawu,
which lisa? One clanks keys from a cinched fighter's belt,
the other flutters hands and lashes.

                                                     The unsmiling woman
at her elbow, monochromatic, enigmatic, asks Beatrice
sideways, What kind of woman are you? Stand here. Answer.
Rearing proud head, she shies at touch, a hand on her rough
starched shirt, breasts hidden under, and the slashed attempts
to unwoman her. Yet her voice leads, low, whispering,
Answer me and live.

Wanting to taste her scarred path,
to trace with tongue each danger she has passed.
To meet her as if at a dirt crossroads, makeshift
altar, a pile of sandstone, plastic roses, red ribbon,
a sign with illegible words from a god once there.
To stir their tracks together in the dusty road. To kneel
and lick her palm, scraped raw, shoved down on pavement.

To enter the lean-to house and lie down as night rises,
fog billowing like smoke up from the fields. Inside,
cedar smolders, the bloody shirt is stripped off.
To lie under her, to become the place both are going,
a rhythm like oars in water. The winter begun outside.
The snakes asleep. None to lick her ears so she could hear
an answer, none waiting to steal her words.

                                                                             On her own
about how to answer, she waits for the woman to descend
through smoke, past the grinning bouncer, the vending machine.

She waits for her boot clack on the stair, old sound of desire.

Beatrice waits for the woman with eyes that say, Come with me.
Into the rain-streaked street of night, the yellow leaves fallen
like golden scars on black asphalt, they walk out their answer
to the riddle, the woman who is not a man, the woman who is not a woman, following the yellow drift like fire around the corner.

From Walking Back Up Depot Street (The Pitt Poetry Series)

Minnie Bruce Pratt

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