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Sample Poems by Karen Head

Hester Speaks


Listen child,
to what you imagine I know
to memories you do not have—
me lying beside Settindown Creek
before the cotton mill’s wheel
began churning the water
before the white man
stole me from the past
and built the covered bridge
before I was old enough
to know my Cherokee name
formed from dancing spirits
that call me on the wind.


Even without memory,
I knew I should never
cut my hair—
so I grew it past the hips
that birthed a line to you
kept it in two tight braids
I would tie together
across my waist
the ends hanging loose
between my legs
thickly woven, separate lives.


I do not remember
how I learned
to dance
a cup and saucer
filled with well-water
balanced on my head
how I managed
not to spill anything
why I did it the first time
why I continued.


My Christian name
was a mistake
a misspelling of Esther,
another foreign bride.
She knew her real name—
Hadassah was careful
about revealing herself
but had memories, choices—
I did not marry a king
could not save my people.


When you dance, child,
do you feel me?
I’ve watched you
spin wildly
it is me you hear,
my cup tipping over,
whispering a new name
for the rhythms
you cannot resist.

Part of the Bargain

“Take a shiny quarter for it?”
She clutched my left ring finger
caressing the wart I wanted rid of.
She had an eye twitch
as if a rapid wink had possessed her.
I couldn’t imagine why
this old crone would want my wart
how exactly she would get it,
but I was thirteen and desperate,
tired of the cute boys, ugly ones too,
saying I was out kissing frogs,
calling me a witch.
So, when Granny offered
to sneak me over to the conjure woman
while my mama was running errands
I was game, eager even,
just didn’t realize I’d be selling
a part of myself.

Standing there on that back porch
overhanging a creek,
I could hear the croaking
as I took the quarter
and one last look at my wart.
“Belongs to me now, quit your looking.”
Her eye no longer twitched.
She turned back into her shack,
and Papa drove us home.

Next day, the wart was gone
and for the first time in my life
I felt I’d sold out,
gave away my magic for nearly nothing.

Southern Gothic

The best I can offer
is that my granny and papa
lived on a dead-end dirt road
in a single-wide trailer,

that one of Daddy’s sisters
accidentally drank rat poison
stored in an old green wine jug
after a night of cards and drinking,

that Mama and Daddy married,
sixteen and eighteen,
three weeks into his Army Basic Training
and no baby came for over a year,

that I was born on Peachtree Street—
Crawford Long Hospital, Atlanta, Georgia
six weeks early, four pounds,
nothing but wailing,

that I was baptized outside
Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church,
then blacklisted from membership
when I became a Catholic.

My life has been full of movement
one Army base to another—
opera in Stuttgart
schnapps at a Mississippi levee.
Hell, for me, has two syllables
and I’m always fixin’ to do something
so, you can imagine my surprise
when the doctor said, “Lupus,”

and I realized what was finally at my door.

Military Wife

"If you have any more children, you will die."
My brother's tiny hand wrapped
around my mother's index finger.
Staring into the doctor's eyes—
only seventeen, in a foreign country—
she agreed to have her tubes tied.

Ten years later they told her,
She dug her heels into the stirrups.
In America, she would not acquiesce.
Death almost took her.
With no recollection of my birth,
she was sent home alone
forced to leave me in an incubator
with those same nay-saying doctors.

I never suckled,
did not see my mother's breasts
until I was fairly grown,
until they sagged weighted
under years of being told no.

My mother never went to college,
did not have a public career.
She married at fifteen,
exhausting her individuality
somewhere between
the smoldering ruins of Atlanta
and a base near the Berlin Wall.
She was a good wife, a good mother.
But lately when I stare hard at her face,
I notice she is old.

When I encourage her to try new things
she smiles—her eyes glaze.
A couple of years ago she said,
"I don't think you will ever have children;
I want you to know I'm okay with that."
When I first began college, I didn't talk much,
thought she wouldn't understand.
Now, every morning, over coffee,
she telephones and I tell her
everything I learned the day before.