39 Objects at the Smithsonian
BY AMANDA GUNN
2020 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry, Semifinalist
and now your face on the dollar you dared
to subvert, covertly moving in the marsh,
mud slalom, old boots or none, guns and fire
and nigger I’m coming for you nigger I’ll have
your black hide nigger I’ll bleed you like a pig
nigger. Sister, sister. I meditated you here
from a pillow, white cotton and soft. I brought it
back to the breath and the breath brought me you,
my mind unrested. What doubts tested you?
How did you walk into that first night in the dark,
knee-deep through the murmuring creek, the stars
cloaked in cloud and your fellow-fear,
a stack of bills the prize for your fragile, dear throat?
Bills weighed against your body on God’s
damned scales. Memory fails: I recall just
three things from the tongue my lover taught me,
three things her love bought me—hello,
I love you, how much does it cost? What did having,
holding cost, leaving him there, too? How many
twenties would’ve bought you? How many twenties
to sell you south, rebirth you in the mouth
of America? They called you Minty back then.
Mint leaves scenting the dooryard. Mint jelly
for “master’s” lamb. A mint he made off your
good, strong back, good, strong teeth, golden,
fresh wheat in your good, strong hands.
Yesterday I gave away a twenty on the street,
a Jackson, an accident of birth in my pocket,
and the woman’s face like a torch caught light.
I turned my head, still and always insufficient
to the day, shamed to have praised
my own self. O, Harriet, woman most
equal to your time, you hover there above
my hewn-fine desk, dark, deadly, dead and alive,
knife-keen and waiting and resolute, not
knowing me or needing me, just wanting,
perhaps, that war pension raise, that cool
twenty you were promised from the House.