Back to Issue Twenty-Four.

ode to my body



after Lucille Clifton

you were born in the year of the rooster
& the dismembered grandmother

your mama’s first christmas alone, trying to guess
how much sugar to put in the pies

& how much can kill.               you were bundled
into the house with the two uncles

sharing one of the bedrooms              & zero baths
(a summer cabin                                 in another life)

i have treated you like anything i never earned
every light blazing                  fridge wide open,

cooling the whole neighborhood       doors unlocked.
i don’t know    how you          survived

the years without sunscreen
or health insurance.     crabs from the first time

i dropped                     (nameless
as apple seeds)                       into the toilet.

the everclear.  the laxatives.   the Black-n-Milds.
you should have happened to a more

careful woman.          never known
anxiety           or         shame

the 13-hour drive through arkansas     panic
silent as the sleet stickying the windshield.

the lectures taught with a gallon of Prep scouring
your insides                   the distance to the bathroom tucked

behind one ear            my pride intent
on beating your best time.

if you could speak in languages
other than mucus & loose stools,

i would apologize        for this & other things
just to hear you answer           in a voice not unlike

my own           remind us what we are to each other:
echo, narcissus—both drunk on their own

guile. both murderous in their
insistence       of love.

you should know        i never looked at you
& blamed your mother           though it is true

i have wished you smaller      with more symmetry
like the stone of a fruit nestled in the slick flesh

of the world.               in so many ways
i have tried      to discard you

or i have           cut you in two
with water fasts          & nicotine

stretched you to feed
the men                       what they wanted

the women what they could love.
when you failed           & i have called

you failure                   who could i blame?
what wonder is it                    that your newest threat

is your own patrol of cells                  —house divided
as the country                       intent             on stealing

your coverage.                                   it’s alright
that this is the most   epic thing about you.

& alright that   like your ancestors     you might leave
with fewer parts than            those with which you came

i would promise you                good years
between now & then                         but who would i

be fooling?      even now        i’m slipping you milk
&         slabs of bread             smeared

with butter.     like all your lovers
i know             how much you can take

i have come to love    not you
but your          refusal to be consumed

i push you up              pill bottles & down stairs.
& every morning                    you wrap a thin          new layer

of membrane          around the sac that holds
my heart     dispatch          a brigade of cells

with their sealed    warrants
to a host of organs            i hope i never see.


Destiny O. Birdsong is a poet and essayist whose poems have either appeared or are forthcoming in African American Review, Indiana Review, Bettering American Poetry Volume II, and elsewhere. Her critical work recently appeared in African American Review and The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature. Destiny is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and Jack Jones Literary Arts, and residencies from the Ragdale Foundation and the MacDowell Colony. Read more of her work at

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