The following three poems are excerpted from Witch Hazel, a novel in verse.
Sacred Money Can’t Gamble, a Jealous Man Can’t Work
Witness: The Father
Verbena, lavender, and lemon scented
the pillowslips and sheets on her antique bed,
mattresses piled high as a seven-layer cake,
comforter ruffled and trussed. She dressed
her white gold tresses before a beveled mirror,
French porcelain her vanity, studded pearl,
perfection imaged for a black man with blond eyes.
Through the window that nigra whistled, short of breath,
his gaze nuzzling two alabaster moons rounded
above the lace piping, her bodice of shirred chiffon.
Forsooth! The rape of her locks. Her so tender—
by almighty Zeus, such a goddess must be protected.
Look not upon her beauty bright;
For in her glance there is a snare,
And in her smile there is a blight.
The great white witch rides out tonight.
Witness: The Defendant
We was croppin split shares ’n I passes by
her place mor’n a time or two mos evraday.
She always come out for a word, right friendly,
som times offerin a cup a water quench a man
bone dry. Often had a chore or two whut needs
a man to do, her fatha no good buckra, drunk.
Sometime it be kindlin she wont,
lik ta chop up a old chifferobe. I be’s feelin
sorry fo her, whut wid so many chirren on de place.
But I swears fo Gawd Almighty
onliest time I crossed dat fence wuz when she say.
Southern pine railroad freight
Chattanooga to Memphis.
Posse in Paint Rock rushed in,
train-tied nine black boys
together with a plow,
loaded em on a flat-bed truck
on the slippers of Ruby’s words.
If you saw those creatures—
mouths slits in their faces,
eyes popped out like frogs’,
bewhiskered and filthy,
chin-dripped tobacco juice—
you would not ask how they could.
“Thirty cents of rope would do the work,”
they say, “and it wouldn’t cost
the county much,”
the crowd so whipped up.
Whistled at a white woman hard like a train?
Found dumped in the Hatchie,
head half-smashed in,
one bullet hole, one eye gouged.
O brothers mine, take care! Take care!
The great white witch rides out tonight.
Trust not your prowess nor your strength,
Your only safety lies in flight.
Verdict: The Jury
All white. All male. All right.
Choruses above excerpted from “The White Witch,” by James Weldon Johnson, 1922.
Someone else might tell it different.
She hunched her dress and squat.
The boy fell out face down
on a crest of pine needles
tucked away from the cabin,
spot not quite on the road,
—but left of the railroad tracks
his brothers box-rode out of town—
and lay in a caul of blood.
Steal away, steal away to Jesus.
How could he know talk had always
been colored over the thin wraith
of his mama, her sloe-eyes sunk,
mouth pouted each time the train
slowed to cast down ’visions, newsprint, snuff,
the passenger men and engineer
’maginin her hay hair, ’baster
arms and legs coiled tightly
’bout the body of her coal-car lover,
him shovelin out her bed. Becky—
name on their lips like beads of a prayer.
But no one ever saw her as they passed.
Steal away, steal away home.
Sinned not once, not twice, but thrice
—at least that they knew.
First two they forgived, her but
seven- and nineteen.
Menfolk white and black had built
her cabin sturdy on throttled ground
and kept watch each cold for the silent
signal of the lonesome chimney’s puff.
By thirty-nine she should of learned
her lesson, though unschooled:
treat as specious laws of God and man,
face the spaciousness of the grave.
She might could call them neighbors,
though they lived in town, when deep
they laid her body neath the eaves
of a tree they called Epiphany, six-foot
cord intact, attached, still,
to the white-washed wriggling boy.
Steal away to Jesus, steal away home.
Witch Hazel Still Like Water
Rain stirring huh riverpot,
head fulla spider braids,
Witch Hazel worked sleight’a both hands,
ev’ry morn dipt one in a brine
of urine ta ward off evil,
milked huh hog, sharpened
huh spittin tongue. Kept
dung piled high for huh ta work roots,
lef a nightbowl hind the outhouse
catch fallin stars. She stay
roun River Road in a thin-lit room.
Say Witch Hazel be borned
f’om out a black birch log
since huh mammy be’d sold away.
No one ought could tell huh age,
she dont half have teef,
but never did wash huh linsey dress
’n dat blue nevah faded, nevah tore.
Quiet? What’chu talkin bout.
Look down ’n dere she be a whisperin,
look up ’n she be gone. Like a waterfall
always be runnin, seem like
anybody need huh could fin’ huh—
she dont never not be home.