Bless This House: Peggy
(enslaved cook, 19th century New York City)
Backstairs twistin' like my braids
every time I gently place tray
after hot tray on that dusty top
step. My bulky reflection tangled
in the platter’s words: “Bless This House.”
Must be only the Miss’s part it’s talking
cause there’s little blessed livin’
in this here cellar. But she and me
got the hours straight—eights, twelves, sixes;
Sundays’ sixes is five—when the tips
of my fingers tap my side of the door.
Wait. Tap again ‘til I hear her clear her throat
Then I know the mistress knows their eats
is ready. In their world—where people
only belch and dream—rest of her
family think supper just shows up
Which/One: 1712 slave revolt
(Either of two enslaved women—Abigail or Sarah—was pregnant and summarily executed for participating in New York’s 1712 slave revolt)
Abigail? Sarah? Equally rebels. But which
one womb, nearly nine months, 200-
bone home? Which one
want to usher to this ugly, life?
(A black lilac hoping to bloom in the family way)
Which old soul for newborn, which
one six-week teeth, which
nearly-milk, belly swell? Which one
raise hell to raise
Which one her one
hope to see April shower but won’t
see May flower? (see, she never cottoned to the long hour) Which
long-since maiden lying
in wait: Maiden Lane, half-basket hilt
before urine and shit. Sugar
maple: which one
crouched near its long-winged seeds
and sweet, eventual sap, which one
nurturing fetus and fire in her belly
planning to birth
murder? Which one
blood stopped: (menses) months before
she made colonial blood flow?
See, she done "playing the lady" for a bit less back-break and a little more cornmeal
Which one struck flint to gunpowder?
Which one bone girdle? Which
one 4-month feel it—the quickening—which one
sensed baby-leg move, palm
blossom, tiny fingers fist? Which one look
down as something somersaults in her stomach?
Which one fetus scoop, atlas for embryo
delivery date globed between darkened nipple and hip
sanguine between cocked and shot?
Which one tender, nine-moon knot? What
the etymology of Sarah of Abigail
of air? Which father’s joy? What prophetess?
Which Genesis? What Testament? Where
Africa in these appellations? Which
Gysbert? Which Stophell? Which
Vaninburgh? Which Pels? Witch
doctor. Peter? Which root doctor?
midwife’s knowery, when? When
to administer black haw or blue
cohosh? In the lying-in room? How long
to decompose this inky composition
for this alphabet to utterly
flesh itself out? Which one—
like her body eventually—had her   suspended?
sentence   Which one
hid beside the same kind
of wood she’ll hang from? Hard.
Which will you give leave to
give birth only to turn around
and take her life? Why? Tell me
which one will be for months or days
or weeks a scorned warning—festooned
in a braided chain—meant to halt the dim
ideas of the othered others? Aye, which
gibbet will be choked
up, stunned, unable to shed this
teeming black teardrop?
David Mills is the author of The Sudden Country, The Dream Detective and After Mistic (Massachusetts slavery poems). He has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Breadloaf, The American Antiquarian Society, The Queens Council on the Arts and The Lannan Foundation. He has an MFA from Warren Wilson College. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, Jubilat, Obsidian and Fence. He lived in Langston Hughes’ landmark Harlem home for three years and wrote the audio script for Macarthur-Genius-Award Winner Deborah Willis’ curated exhibition: Reflections in Black:100 Years of Black Photography, which was shown at the Whitney and Getty West Museums. The Juilliard School of Drama commissioned and produced Mr. Mills’ play The Serpent and the Dove. He has also recorded his poetry on ESPN and RCA Records.