Before Emmett Till*
White maggots squirming in the garbage pail.
Mosquitoes zooming through a screen’s pinhole.
Fleas riding the next-door neighbor’s
Cur. I can still picture two summers spent
In that second-floor dead-end apartment.
And the street. Not so vivid the winters.
A three-room claptrap arrangement: a lock—
Kitchen, parents’ bedroom, mine in the back—
For every hallway door. Shared with renters
Below, a bathroom. On a window pulley
Hand-washed from sink the heart-wrung laundry
Above a yard Mother never enters—
Through a net of white summer light
Childhood can fool eternal blight.
Nobody I knew went to camp in summer.
Up and down the hard hopscotch sidewalk
Junk crate scooters raced like fingernails or chalk
Scraping on slate. Anything free compare
With a handball one-way street? Who lost, scored?
Dodge-ball pouters? Hooters? Nobody gored?
Yet, “the bowl” in Clark Park couldn’t repair
My strange faith as luckier kin for greener
Air went down South. Kids’ Mass got thinner
’Til fall, white folks ruling “down the shore”.
*Two blocks from a famous Philadelphia cemetery, The Woodlands, and Clark Park, with its rare Charles Dickens statue, and once flanked by a Breyers Ice Cream factory, this dead-end street is gone, replaced by a University of the Sciences plaza (the former Philadelphia College of Pharmacy). In 2019, in Mississippi at the riverbank where Emmett Till’s body had been retrieved, a fourth memorial has been mounted. Three prior signs had been vandalized.
Leaving Mercy ward and Mother’s twilight zeal
For roulette “yes, but no,” I walked west—no will
Or habit, but found myself disoriented, caught,
At the intersection of a nearsighted fault
And blind retribution—A field of mud
Where a church triumphant once stood.
When I was eight, a priest shut the schoolhouse door
In my face. Not for my race, but a redline border.
My Harlem cousins entered four years later.
Brighter than brown, praised by their pastoral mentor:
Altar boys! Choir boys! Latin proficient!
Sons of a dead cop! The priest found them deficient.
They never let go, themselves at least wed
And their kids born within the creed.
But the heart had been broken, so the grip
Slackened. Who foreclosed on whom? A blip
On the parish screen or fuzzy outlier vision.
Hence, this scorched earth, this forfeit mission.
*During a long-delayed restoration, Transfiguration of Our Lord Catholic Church, built in the late 1800s in West Philadelphia, caught fire, burned beyond repair, was then demolished in 2009. In 2019, Mercy Hospital (formerly Misericordia) announced its closing.
First poetry editor of pioneer feminist magazines, Aphra and Ms., Yvonne has received NEAs for poetry (1974, 1984), a Leeway (2003) for fiction, etc., and is the author of an epic trilogy: Iwilla/Soil, Iwilla/Scourge, Iwilla/Rise (Chameleon). Recent publications: Horror USA: California (Soteira), Is It Hot In Here Or Is It Just Me? (Beautiful Cadaver Project), Home: An Anthology (Flexible), Quiet Diamonds 2019/2018 (Orchard Street), 161 One-Minute Monologues from Literature (Smith and Kraus), Yellow Arrow Journal: Home, Event (49.1), Philadelphia Stories, Metonym, Dappled Things, Burningword Literary, Bryant Literary, Pinyon, Nassau Review, Bosque Press #8, Foreign Literary #1. Selected online publications: www.iwilla.com