David Mills

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

child free?

                              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

                                                            poised undaunted

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?
Morning sickness

                              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.