Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Griffiths is a multi-media artist, poet, and writer. She is the author of four collections of poetry including Miracle Arrhythmia, The Requited Distance, Mule & Pear and Lighting the Shadow, which was a finalist for the 2015 Balcones Poetry Prize and the 2016 Phillis Wheatley Book Award in Poetry. Her visual and literary work has widely appeared, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Tin House. Her forthcoming collection of poetry, Seeing the Body (W.W. Norton), will be published in 2020.

 

Griffiths lives in New York.

 

 

http://www.rachelelizagriffiths.com

Quartet, for Romy

 

“They rented a house from my grandfather.”

 

 

 

They came & danced when they knew

We were watching. Their clothes stained

By the dreams they clenched

Between their teeth. They chewed

Those old dreams all day & night

While they sat staring out of

The windows my grandfather built

When his hands didn’t use to shake.

They owned themselves so our house

Was like some kind of understanding

They allowed themselves to borrow.

They worked under their skin

With tools we all had names for:

Hope, Grace, & the Honest-to-God’s

Truth. They would sit out on the porch

& drink like the sea, which their people

had crossed in ugly ships years ago.

They played cards, fought like dice

Tumbling in the palm of a serious

Gamble. How long they would be there

Was always a question. There was a contract

Between their hands & eyes. There

Was what the field told them & how much

Work would be around for them to pay

My grandfather on the first of the month.

Not like other folk, I tell you they owned

Themselves with no souls on layaway, no

Church stronger than the steeple blazing

From the ribs of their sun-bruised chests.

They laughed with my grandfather

& saw the fields, the big house, the butterflies

That would follow their children’s

Shadows. They could see the way

My grandfather held my hand

When we came calling on them

Because we liked how good

Their eyes looked when they dressed

Themselves up. They knew what

They had: the right to do whatever

They wanted with their beauty,

Which was something

They never had to work at. Being black

Wasn’t about somebody renting

Their bones, their hands, their dancing.

Being black as my grandfather & me,

We all could look up together

At the dripping throne of blue

Sky & remember where

We, flying & hollering,

had first lived & loved

each other in our freedom.

 

“When I was old enough

I found out what Liza’s

mother did for a living.”

 

She rubbed stars from the throats

between men’s minds & deaths. Her own

mind? She kept that black universe to herself

while she watched the world wrap its longing

around the rim of her headboard. The spring

of metal singing inside her grandma’s mattress

where men laid their lives across her

hips & wept until they saw their god rise

up from the night sea, with crying babies

in the arms of the blue air. All salt,

sweat, all sugar, all the walls between

the living & the beatdowns became blades

blown across the field of her mud

brown skin. Yes, skin so old & new

the sun rose & fell in marvel. I, too,

became one of her children. Liza

went off to school on the dimes,

the dull dollars her mother stacked

inside the visions she had. Liza

would be a lady. Mama would be

a god. Her head wrapped in moons

as she & her believers waited

for the sun to look away.

Sometimes she was tired, bored.

Sometimes Liza’s mama said,

“Y’all getting on my nerves

on my day off.” We didn’t know

whether she meant our eyes

or hers. We saw how the world

watched her hips, the boat of her

mouth pressed against the sweet

prayer of her tongue. Kiss of light. Liza’s

mother was sweet like the knife

she carried inside her skin. I never

knew there were other ways to live

until I found myself missing

the way I’d once heard her greet a man

at dusk. I’m trying to tell you

that Liza said her mother could

make a man out of Mecklenberg dust & vice

versa. In Liza’s mother’s garden grew 

a free image of the world, of

a woman living in the sheets

of a glory she washed by herself.

When the sun rose on those

thighs the walls of the house

shimmered while Liza’s mother

& her lover rose from the night,

trembling & pleasured, out of

her wide moonlit sea.

 

She had five children –

all boys.

 

 

1

 

when he said my name my name

became a fist he drew my name

into his mouth my name lived

on his tongue until he had to

eat another woman’s name

i was never enough

of a name or a fist i was never enough

of a blue or a guitar i wasn’t

a knife at his throat but

i kept trying

after he left

to ball my love

into a fist & use it against someone

i used to love – myself –

but breaking

mirrors i’ve been told all my life

is bad luck

 

 

2

 

i believed him five times five

five names five pair of hands

& five pair of feet kicking & pulling me

from inside i believed

he would come back after me

begging crawling thirsting

for me because hadn’t he

always licked the plate

clean when i put it on

the table & because i’d given in,

given him five boys –

they were mine to be sure

but i was willing to share

their eyes & lips their way

of boy-murmuring as they

dreamt

 

 

3

 

you learned very early on that

either side of the street

could be sunny or blue

& you learned that men could be streets

or sunlight or blues if you weren’t used

to squinting at them before you held on

to the sweet promises that they knew

where the gold inside you was hidden

gold you already knew you made

by yourself because it was the same

gold your grandmama had forced

into your mouth told you to swallow

before her hands

went still on the blue quilt

 

 

4

 

five boys in central park

four girls in birmingham

one boy at that lorraine motel

another boy at the audubon ballroom

a son getting out of his car in mississippi

what will they do what they think

they going to do to my five

if i don’t arm them with color

& gods? what they going to watch

& who they going to watch

when my children go dreaming

along a sunny street & forget

that there are bullets waiting

to high-five their brains

with sleep

 

 

5

 

i love their fists their cries i

love their appetites when they are hungry

i love their shame their pride their brown

eyes blinking away the world when they come

back to my house & i say they can leave

the world be for a while

because they need to

 

i got a boy who is a painter romy

be painting the blues

but we be laughing hard & dancing anyway

i got a boy who say he is going to be

the 44th president because he had a dream & hit

his number 400 years ago i got a boy

who say he training to be

a butterfly-bee-stinging boxer

i got a boy who say he is

going to be trouble

another one of my boys say

he a poet & going to blow up

america & then his brother

who is going to marry

the love of his life named liza

tells him to shut up

calls him fool

but i am listening

to my son’s anger

as he puts his rage away

kissing me hello mama

how you been feeling

 

once i was their world & still am & i

held them boys like the sea

holding her own honest rage the waves

holding peace & rainbows too

 

i tell you i love i got a boy

for each of the fingers of my hand

i tell you i got twenty-five fingers & toes now

& once i was a fist & a name for a man

who wanted me to be lonely & hungry

all the time until he made up his mind

to return but that man

was always returning until he wasn’t

& now should that man come

through my door of birth

with the key i gave him long ago

that man will find my five fists

waiting & waving hello

 

“Everything they said a conjur

woman could do I believed.”

 

First, a conjur woman could fly. So I believed that.

Except that a conjur woman didn’t have a beginning.

Neither did she have an end. Maybe there was a middle

somewhere in the magic she kept under her fingernails

& inside her upper lip. Maybe her name was Pilate

or Corregidora. Maybe her name was Toni, Aunt Esther,

Aretha, or Celestial. Maybe a conjur woman was

a nameless color that rushed through my mind

when I looked up through magnolia that sighed

as she closed her legs. I’ve seen a conjur woman

force the sky to snow because she might be feeling

like you hadn’t listened to her the first damn time.

 

They said she could make babies & take them back.

They said she could make other women live forever

if she felt like it. They said that when a conjur woman

went to Sunday service Jesus got down from that cross

& sat down in the back row, weeping her blood,

praying for forgiveness. They said a conjur woman was

your worst enemy because she could give you

exactly what you wanted. I could never spy

on these women because they had eyes inside of

my skin. Sometimes I have felt a conjur woman blinking

in my dreams, sharing the message, the meaning of

a white bird or green snake. The conjuring of these

women is a dazzle of grammar & body. They put on

a shape & take it off like a too-tight girdle.

 

I’ve seen a conjur woman touch the knife

my mother held against my daddy’s throat

when they fought about where the rent

money had been spent.  You ever seen

a conjur woman put her own blood in the painting

of leaves in autumn? They said these women love blood

best. They said all the blood in this world & beyond

is trying to get back into the conjur woman’s

secret, second heart.

 

I stand at the bank & watch a conjur

woman save the river from its own foolishness.

I stand in the field & watch a conjur woman laugh

at the crow’s vanity as it plucks golden stalks for seeds.

Once I stood on the roof of Mecklenberg County itself

& folded my wings. “Baby, I gave you those long time ago,” a voice said. Then we are laughing together

because, below us, we spied the little Bearden boy

with his blue hands & wide smile. His eyes singing sky.

“He the only one who going to remember the most,”

I said. Then the conjur woman nodded at me & flew

away. You never heard the laughter of a conjur

woman? All you got to do is open your mouth.

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