Yes, we were country, lived in shotgun
shacks, where the road loses its way
to dirt and live oaks and all along
the way ancient cypress, but we’d play
deep in the swamp, where Collins
built his still, and made sweet peach
moonshine; that is where we made stories
to cherish in our hearts, a place to reach
for something warm, something to make
a woman remember the blood rush
in the head, singing and doing the shake
and stump to the blues; there in the bush
where she was that pretty thing; her eyes
soft with needing, her mouth full of lies.
Yes, we was country, but even a country
girl knows the power of her coochie,
how it could wake her without mercy
late at night because of the sweet mystery
of a dream; because of the scent
of burning tobacco in the air, the taste
of man; country, but I learned
the calming of liquor, how all haste
leaves the head, how big laughter
can rise off the skin like mist at dawn.
Country, but I was a fine believer
in the power of my waist-line, the bone-
shifting sweetness of nights of blue air,
the juke joint where you let go all cares.
Before you man, I didn’t join no church;
before you, man, Bessie Smith was my girl;
before you, man, used to wear my skirt
hitched up high around my thigh, used to twirl,
show off my hairy legs, so men could think
of all that hair climbing up my thighs.
Before you, I told God to just wink
for a minute while I learned the soft sighs
of women; before you, man, there were
no fences, no gates, just a wide
road; before you, I used to swear
like a whore and dance, all wild
and loose; so don’t think I have forgotten,
despite my new self, this good holy Christian.
Before you, man, I traveled, Lord, I traveled.
Every town from Mississippi to Pennsylvania
was a shelter and I found a place to revel
in the freedom and glorious regalia
of a queen girl, wearing silk and satin
and shoes so pretty they became a drug.
Before you, man, people called me “Passion,”
or “Fast Rose” or “Magdalene,” who ain’t any
better than any hard-dancing girl; I made men
weep for their mamas, made bad women
soft so they wanted to call be “best friend
for life, sweet sister,” and be my mother hens.
Before you, I could run, man, but now
you have caused this fast girl to take it slow.
Kwame Dawes is the author of nineteen books of poetry and numerous other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. He has edited more than a dozen anthologies. His latest collection, Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon), appeared in 2013. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and teaches at the University of Nebraska and the Pacific MFA Program. He is Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Artistic Director of
the Calabash International Literary Festival.