Rigorous
Volume Two, Issue 1



Crystal J. Zanders


Mississippi

The Lord passed gas discreetly outside the pearly gates and you came into being. Hot, sticky, and wet, you glistened and preened in His presence, keeping up the façade of devotion until He denied you the freedom to treat others as you wished them to be treated. Never really conceding defeat after your rebellion, you tattooed its symbols on delicate parts of your body for remembrance, you say, history.

You grab visitors by the ear and drag them into your dining room, serving up that history deep-fried on a skewer among the chicken, onions, pickles and potatoes. Honey mustard dressing and your genteel manners mask the bitterness. Soon, they are too full to fight you, and having ingested your essence, they become you.

Your company is best enjoyed in the twilight, sipping syrupy sweet tea in the shade of a magnolia tree next to a pond surrounded by friends, family and four-wheelers. Your relationships go back generations; your grandmother was best friends with your best friend’s grandmother, your mother with her mother and now the two of you, soon your children. Ya’ll share present tense laughter about people who died five, ten, twenty, fifty years ago. Your laugh is the most uncivilized thing about you, Mississippi.

You’ve been having an affair with the feds for as long as anybody can remember. He’s controlling, you say, doesn’t treat you right, but, in the middle of the night you let him in through your kitchen door. He brings promises of a prosperous future, never quite using the “m” word, then leaves money on your dresser before sunrise.

Despite it, you wear your white shoes and white gloves, and when necessary, you’ll wear a white dress, applying your makeup with a heavy hand to disguise the creases and cracks time and conflict have carved into your face. A lady doesn’t tell her age, nor does she show it. You never smoke in the house or allow dogs or feet on the couch; you don’t drink liquor before noon and never on a Sunday. Every Sunday, you sing and pray and to the Lord to forgive your trespasses against Him with tears of sincerity shinning in your eyes. Every Monday, you are back to smilin’ and sinnin’, but God knows your heart.




For the Pregnant Girl Who Couldn’t Spell Her Last Name

I
You should have never been placed in ninth grade English. I used to make you put up your teen magazines in my class. You didn’t really read it, couldn’t really read but it made you happy to look at the pictures. You’d turn in papers covered in crayon-scribbles and your first name.


II
I gave away the plant you gave me.
You grew it in your special class.
You were proud. I was honored,
but I couldn’t take care of it.


III.
I hope that when you saw him in the hallway at school,
at the Piggly Wiggly, at church, you smiled and waved.

I hope that afterwards, you covered
your notebook with heart stickers and smiley faces.

I hope that you loved him and thought
he loved you back— even if it wasn’t true.

I hope you were not afraid.


IV.
I was worried when one of my teacher-friends told me
she saw you walking home by yourself, worried enough
that I talked your sister about walking you home worried
because you were sixteen, physically, but mentally much younger.
because even in small towns, in daylight, it’s dangerous for girls to walk alone.
because your innocence made you vulnerable, made you prey.


V.
When he kissed you,
did you turn your face away?

Did his hands leave bruises or scars,
dark reminders etched in soft skin?

Was it just the two of you?
Or was there a crew leering, waiting their turn?

Were you afraid?


VI.
In the days before they moved you into the special needs class,
we read “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” aloud.
You drew a picture of the angel in red crayon,
wings open wide, arms lifted to the sky.




You Will Be Offended If You Recognize Yourself in this Poem

On my way back from Memphis, I stopped
in a small town to see you. It was a sunny
afternoon at Starbucks, and
we sat outside talking and drinking
over-priced lemonade and iced coffee
when a white F-150 rolled down the highway
Confederate flag waving in the wind.

That doesn’t bother you? I asked.
You sat back in your metal chair,
stroked your beard and said
I feel like it represents freedom,
They wouldn’t be controlled,
wouldn’t take any shit.


I didn’t say that they were standing up
for their right to make billions
from owning my ancestors. I didn’t talk
about how they were fighting to be free
to rape young women,
to beat and hunt and mutilate—

I didn’t ask you if you thought it was ok
that your ancestors owned mine.

Instead, I took a sip of my lemonade,
let it sit on my tongue long enough
for the sweet to turn bitter long enough
to feel the acid burn the inside of my cheeks
before I swallowed it down.




Remembered

After a series of costly slave suicides, a captain decided to make an example of one woman. They called the slaves on deck, lowering her body into the water and raising it back up to show the remains, ravaged by sharks below.

I wish I could write the moment so that
when you raised your arms and they wrapped
the rope around your chest, rubbing rough
against the softness of your breasts
you felt triumphant.

I want to write it so that when
they raised you up and you looked down
at the crew of the slave ship
and the slaves standing on the deck
you watched them blink, gazing
at you as if they were staring at the sun.

I want to write satisfaction in your eyes
genuflection in theirs, to relax your features,
those cheekbones, high and proud, framing wide lips
I want to show your beauty,
to lace your fingers gently together as they lower
your body and you float into the sea.

I want you to go down like you know
your death will take you back to your village,
back to your ancestors, your mother
with hips like boulders and a laugh
so long and loud that your father called it
elephant song. And your baby girl
born blue, the cord wrapped around her neck
buried in the shadow of the baobab tree
in the tradition of your people.

History has forgotten you, but
I remember when I close my eyes and see
your torso rising from the water trailing blood,
bowels swinging in the summer sun.




The River II

I’m takin’ my baby to the river.
Yep, I’m takin’ my baby to be baptized.
Uh-huh, she needs that peace,
that peace that passeth understandin’
And I’ma give it to her, well,
Jesus gonna give it to her.

Boy, my feet are tired
And my arms hurt from carryin’ this load
But His yoke is easy and His burdens light.
Stop kickin’. You gonna see Jesus!
We just gotta get you in that water—
that holy water.

I can feel it now, creepin’ up my legs
ploppin’ in my face
Don’t fight it, baby girl.
That’s it.
Feel that holy water over your body
Feel it in your mouth
Feel it in your lungs.
Don’t be afraid.
Do you see him?
Do you see Jesus?


Crystal J. Zanders: "I am a poet, teacher, and pug-owner who lives in Albuquerque. I am currently an MFA candidate at the University of New Mexico in Poetry. My work has been featured in Mud Season Review, |tap|lit, 45th Parallel and elsewhere."




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