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Four Poems

Issue 104, Spring 2019

“Mama Goma” (2014) | Photos by Deana Lawson © 2018 Deana Lawson. Courtesy Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. From Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph (Aperture, 2018)

The Book of Tubman

And God said let her head be split—a black melon, leaking—
And God let iron sprout from the master’s hand—
And God breathed blood in the master’s eyes and said strike
                And that’s the story of the great crack in Harriet’s skull that was an eye,
                that’s the way God poured her full of visions thick as sap,
                unmoving, slowed as a scab over the gash.
And God said let there be Harriet,
                And Araminta went on to Glory,
                Araminta could smile in Heaven, hoist her skirts above her ankles and dance
                Harriet, on Earth, kept that sweet eye fixed on the North Star,
                Kept her pistol cocked, each bullet an unsaid prayer—
And God made a railroad out of dirt and sweat, made a train out of a woman,
And God made her hair a burning bush,
Her body so holy, even He called her Moses. 

“Wanda and Daughters” (2009)

Harriet Tubman Crosses the
Mason-Dixon for the First Time

When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

—Harriet Tubman, in Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman
by Sarah Hopkins Bradford

This light, the glory of my name, 
its mother-shaped shine, 
the way it wrapped around me, Araminta, 
making me invisible; 
I didn’t see the line when I crossed it—
only light, making everything new; 
here, they say the winters spill out, 
white a boll inside my palm; 
here, gold adorns the trees, 
the sun sheds its effervescence through the leaves;
I touch the place where the master split my head with iron, 
even that imperfection is brilliant here;
maybe tomorrow I’ll bathe in this illuminated air, 
wash my body in hot joy;
or, maybe I’ll trap it in my hands, twist it into a golden basket—
my harvest will strip every tree beneath the Mason-Dixon,
I will rob them of their stolen light. 



Harriet Tubman, Beauty Queen
or Ain’t I a Woman?

“This place has made us heroines / not wives / and kept us from its sparkles and / its paints / and made us dull in natural disguise”

—“Conversation Overheard in a Graveyard,”
Lucille Clifton

“No disrespect but Harriet Tubman ugly as hell
Cashiers ain’t even gone accept the money”

—tweet by @Real_KingJosh, April 20, 2016


Look, there, don’t you see the way they slope?—
my breasts, the shadows where milk might have dropped 
if only I’d been born woman instead of slave 

woman—what sparkles and paints
could I choose? No rouge could flush this face,
no powder could trap this unstoppable black.

How funny, you call me rough.
All I see is softness—the way
my lips pillow out—even my scowl 

you’ll want to pucker and peck.
My nose?—it will snort the whole damned
Mason-Dixon in one drag.

North Star, promised constellation, you my mirror.
What can I see except my own face?—
when I see you, Heaven’s compass and jewel. 

“Nikki’s Kitchen” (2015)

Broken Sonnet in Which
Harriet Is the Gun

You can twentydollarbill me and still
won’t hold me—you silly, you think 
I’m knowable? Ownable? O, the shrill
whine of a master losing a slave, clink,

there goes your bloody bucket of gold.
O, America, where my face could pay 
the price of a body and be body-
you know how I never lost a slave? Books say

I was firm, cold: dead niggers tell no tales.
What they forget
                                                  how they always forget—
love can journey through the night, bear the swales
and hills from here to hell. Love protects. 

What I gave them was a smile (asylum).
My bullet, a tooth plucked from God’s gums—

Read an interview with Ashley M. Jones here

Ashley M. Jones

Ashley M. Jones is the Poet Laureate of Alabama and the author of three award-winning poetry collections, most recently REPARATIONS NOW! (Hub City Press, 2021). Among her honors are those by the PEN/Voelker Prize for Poetry, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the National Poetry Series, the New York Times, BBC, and the Independent Publishers Book Awards. Jones is the founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival and co-director of PEN Birmingham. She teaches creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and for Converse University’s Low Residency MFA Program.