Poem of the Week | May 15, 2017

This week, we are excited to offer a new poem by Cammy Thomas. Thomas’ first book of poems, Cathedral of Wish, received the 2006 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. Both it and her second book, Inscriptions, are published by Four Way Books. A fellowship from the Ragdale Foundation helped her complete Inscriptions. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Appalachia, The Classical Outlook, The Maine Review, Off The Coast, Spillway, and Third Wednesday. Thomas grew up on Long Island and was educated primarily in California, writing her PhD dissertation at Berkeley on Tennyson’s poetry. A degree in poetry followed from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and teaches literature and creative writing at Concord Academy.

Author’s note:

The incident I describe happened fifty years ago and has haunted me ever since. I think what finally enabled me to write about it was reading recent books by writers reflecting on their experiences of being black in America, books such as Citizen by Claudia Rankine and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates. I began to wonder whether I could write honestly about my experience of being white in America. This poem is part of that project.


The Blues in My Heart, the Rhythm in My Soul

—for SMM

She asked for my Elmore James album—
the only time she asked me for anything
in the eight years she cooked
and cleaned and washed our hair,
picked us up from school
and helped us bathe and choose our clothes.


I didn’t think she liked us much—
she had two kids of her own near Mobile,
older kids she rarely saw. She complained
about Long Island cold. Her friends
from the local black beauty salon
sometimes came over and smoked
in her little, downstairs room.


One night when I was about fourteen,
they told me I should color my hair,
put highlights in, and pluck my shaggy
brows. They smiled at me
but when I left the room, a burst of laughs.


Once our Doberman had a seizure
in the kitchen, and she ran out
and slammed the door, left us
with him, flipping and foaming at the mouth.


I liked that album a lot,
and her asking for it made me
like it more. I told her no.