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“Madonna with Flowers” (2018), by Kennedi Carter. This photograph is on view at the gallery at 21c Durham through January 2020

Issue 107, Winter 2019

Clara & Josephine

“She was billed as the Queen of the Moaners and the World’s Greatest Moaner. . . . An interesting bit of trivia was that Clara gave Josephine Baker her first taste of show business in 1920 when she gave the thirteen year old Baker a job as her dresser in her touring company.”

—Red Hot Jazz

Out on the bawdy road of 1920, 
Clara Smith can-cans the circuit, 

yardbird nightingale of Carolina, 
young Josephine is hired to make 

sure Clara’s makeup is tight, 
to dress and dress (and undress)

Clara Smith, Blues woman. They share 
a room with no peephole, old gal, 

young gal, they laugh and tell the boys 
who want to stop by, they’s roommates. 

One girl moaning on Saturday night 
for a living, two girls moaning on Sunday 

just to keep alive. They save their 
money and the boys move on for now. 

They are safe from the fist fights 
of the sapphire road of 1920. 

Young Jo’s job, to take in every inch of
Clara, make sure she’s got two earrings 

on two ears, make sure she strokes a glossy
line of red icing across her singer’s lips. 

But young Jo’s eyes go off duty more than 
stay on the clock, following Clara’s blue boa 

down the front of her black dress, watching
every feather touch every button until it pools

then shimmers on the floor just by her feet.
Clara and Josephine live girl on girl, on the 

catch-as-catch-can Blues road of 1920. 
The old gal knows the steady soft percussion

of a woman’s hand on a woman’s body. 
How her fingers can make cherries sing 

and jubilee. The young girl pays attention to 
how a woman’s body can curve, can make a

loud new line. Backstage Josephine is back 
on the job, lifting to her tippy-toes, making 

sure Clara’s slip is not slipping and no moths 
are circling her stockings, intending to land 

on the sweet lights she knows are just inside 
the thick pole of her thighs. It’s the first time 

she’s ever felt someone move inside her from 
clear across the room. Later, back behind their

door with no peephole, the whole rent house 
will know when Clara’s famous sweet potato 

pie is pulled from the oven, but no one will 
have a clue when Clara’s boa drops to the floor,

off duty, speaking French, take you another 
slice, girls like us wear snakes and bananas.

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Nikky Finney

Nikky Finney was born in South Carolina. Her newest collection, Love Child’s Hot Bed of Occasional Poetry, will be published by Northwestern University Press in April 2020.