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