Jessica Rich (previously Standifird)
is a writer and performer currently pandemic’ed in a basement apartment somewhere in Portland, Oregon. Her work can be found in journals and anthologies, including Unchaste Volume II, River & South Review, Bear The Pall: Poems on the Death of a Parent, The Manifest Station, and more. One of her pieces was read by Parker Posey and Ed Harris at a gala for the East Coast Writer’s Guild in NYC. This all makes her sound way cooler than she actually is. Jessica would like you to know that none of this matters as much as Black Lives do.
The claws of my father
stretch up and down my stomach
the way age stripes memory.
Markers of events I sometimes try to forget but can’t.
They grew with each child I carried.
Jagged reminders of how we tear our mothers apart
to enter this world.
Doctors say it is simple:
a matter of skin and biology.
But 5 years old, 6, 7, 8, and others,
Fourteen knows best of all
the foreshadowing of aching pink and purple.
Of Vitamin E slathered on skin so close to broken
I could feel his breath there still.
One more sigh and I might burst.
Fourteen was there when he created
the blood hieroglyphics
I would wear the rest of my life,
pulling shirts low and pants high
to cover the shame
of what was done in the name of salvation,
the ruin of the name, “Father,”
the things I am perpetually forgetting.
The ancient language carved into
stripes on my skin
turned to loops in my mind
that continue to spin even now, into year 50.
His nails have been ash for eleven years.
The skin-cage below my ribcage has turned the lightest blush.
Biology and generational tongues faded to dulled silence.
for Henrietta Lacks’s legacy
Henrietta you danced.
You danced like the world
wasn’t strapped to your back
shaking cells loose all the way
from your painted toes
to your careful hair.
Shook like that music made you,
soul in your hips and your wide eyes
laughing secrets to your sisters across the dancefloor.
Henrietta you visited every week.
Visited the lost one, the misdiagnosed,
visited the House of the Negro Insane
like it was a home made for mothers
to love their silent daughters,
her existence erased
to everyone but you.
Your daughter, your blood.
You visited Elsie and she clung to you
like a final prayer.
Henrietta you waited.
You waited like saints wish they could.
Walking to treatments and returning
quiet as the cells di-vid-ing inside you.
Didn’t say the word cancer
until you were at the top of the world
until your closest friends couldn’t escape,
I have cancer
and the ride started to spin again.
Henrietta you walked.
You walked to Margaret’s house
after every treatment.
Walked more slowly each day.
You lay on her couch with a sigh
and showed her your burnt belly.
Your words echoing for generations.
“It’s like the blackness is moving through me.”
Clouds scattered on your back,
shoulders thick with the gathering,
legs bent and hips loose.
Soon you will rain
into the earth.
Feet digging the soil
deeper than salt,
imbalance feeding the deep.
Tomorrow never sings the way I imagined.
I mean, the way the music of it made you
bend and dance, guitar in hand
generations in your throat.
I expected celebration, excitement, you know?
The hope that comes with movement.
Instead I inherited the realization of weight.
I was gifted the way it carves curves into your body,
hollows your back and burdens your neck.
Today, I dance because I am pushed low
with the music of promise
unsure if what crosses my face is
a smile or a grimace.
We watch from the porch
cigarette smoke twisting between pieces of sky.
Blankets around our shoulders
to pretend we aren’t numb
as they carry you from the trailer,
face open to the rain
until the shroud swallows you.
A gulp that expands cancer’s throat.
The daffodils you planted
hang their bloom in shame.
“5:42,” your daughter says over and over.
Time of death.
Phone call after phone call.
“5:42” is her mantra.
Your fiancé and the mortician carry your body
to the curb, slide you into your last ride.
They shake hands and together close the black hatchback on your corpse,
and I wonder when minivans became hearses.
The mortician gets in and turns the radio all the way up,
singing along as he makes a U-turn
and carries your body away like it’s
just another day.
And the worst thing of all
is that it is.