Chavonn Williams Shen

To Be Soft

My grandmother’s hands were like figs
dried in a Mississippi summer. Her scars read like love notes:
calluses born in cotton fields, mason jar lid imprints
on her palms, freckled pricks from needles left
in purses, burns near her right wrist.
She was slow with chicken grease.

Sometimes she’d lather dishes and scrub the same cup
until its shine rivaled finery seen
in the Sears catalogs she loved to keep.

She dreamt of mansions up north filled with linen
only meant for others to envy. Her help
would press stubborn shirts and fetch
her coat if the wind even whispered of frost.
They’d rub lavender on her hands until she was soft
as watered earth.

They’d clean windows for her to watch lesser women
pass by, their hands rough like cracked dirt. Thoughts
fixed on to-do list, their own overseers.




I shake ash the color of autumn
from my fingers on a Franklin Avenue
corner, smoke floats
past lips, familiar as music
whistled through teeth.
The men next to me greet
each other, their handshakes
a secret recipe. The girls across the street
travel by skateboard, their movements
subtle as breath. Bossa nova drifts
from a duplex window, the bar below it grows
graffiti like grapevines on its walls. More bodies
join our corner, some blowing smoke
of their own. Ashes fall like shooting
stars from their mouths.



Chavonn Williams Shen was a winner of the Still I Rise grant, a first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction Contest and a Best of the Net Award finalist. She was also a Pushcart Prize nominee, a winner of the Mentor Series in Poetry and Creative Prose through the Loft Literary Center, and a fellow through the Givens Foundation for African American Literature. A Tin House and VONA workshop alum, her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in: Yemassee, the Los Angeles Review, Permafrost Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.