Two blogs back, I wrote about Nikky Finney's poem, "The Afterbirth, 1931", but what I did not do is quote much from the poem and so I fear I deprived us of the chance to look at the poem. Some of you have gone to find the poem, but I thought I would share it with you. The entire Rive is a beautiful book and worth picking up, and this is just one of many really lovely poems in the collection.
The Afterbirth, 1931
We were a Colored Clan of Kinfolk
who threw soil not salt
over our shoulders
who tendered close the bible
who grew and passed around the almanac at night
so we would know
what to plant at first light


Black soil and sweet brown sorghum
from the every morning biscuits
Mama Susan fixed
dripping and mixing
up under our fingernails
a secret salve
lust like any other
living simple
and keeping to our proud selves
quite aware of night riders
quite aware of men with
politicious smiles
who walked by
cologned with kerosene and match
Aware of just whose feet
walked across our tin roofs at night
we were such light sleepers
such long distance believers
we were a family pregnant
whose water had broken
And for once
There was ham money
‘bacca money
so we thought to do better by ourselves
to begin our next row
we would go and get him
because he was medically degreed in baby bringing
because he was young and white and handsome
and because of that
had been neighbor to more knowledge
there in the city
than us back behind the country’s proud but inferior lines
And because he came with his papers in his pocket
so convincing
so soon
after his ivy graduation
asking us hadn’t we heard
telling us times had changed
and the midwife wasn’t safe anymore
even though we had all been caught
by tried and true Black Grannies
who lay ax blade sharpside up
and water pan underneath the bed
to cut the pain
to cool the fever.
We were a Pregnant Clan of Kinfolk
caught with water running down our legs
old family say they can remember
going to fetch him
telling him that it was time
that he should come now
but he didn’t show right away
not right away
but came when he wanted
the next day
after his breakfast
but what more
could we colored country folks ever want
even if we had to watch the road all night for him
even if we had to not let her push too hard
when he finally came
he had his papers on him
something with one of those pretty shiny seals
old family say they can remember
somethin’ just wasn’t right
but we opened the screen for him anyway
trusting
and tendering close what the Good Book
had told us all our lives to do.
Then we made him a path
where he put his hands up then inside
my grandmother’s womb
her precious private pleasing place
somewhere he probably didn’t want to touch
Then he pulled my daddy through
somebody he probably didn’t care to reach for
and from the first he pulled him wrong
and wrong
shattered his collarbone
and snapped his soft baby foot in half
and smashed the cartilage in his infant hand
Wringing
their own sunbacked arms
old timey family
remember him well
say they knew somethin’ wasn’t right
as he came through the door
a day later
his breakfast digested now
somethin’ just wasn’t right
how he had two waters on him
one sweet one sourmash
one trying to throw snow quilt over the other
as he uncarefully
as drunkenly
he with his papers on him still
stood there turning a brown baby into blue
unmagically
and right before our eyes
Hope and pray
Hope and pray
Then he packed his bag and left
with all of his official training
and gathered up gold stars left
the Virginia land of Cumberland county
he left and forgot
he left and didn’t rem ember
the afterbirth inside
Carlene Godwin Finney
to clabber
gangrene
close down
her place
her precious private pleasing place
to fill the house to the rafters
up past the dimpled tin roof
with a rotting smell
that stayed for nine days
that mortgaged a room
on our memories
and did not die along with her
We were a Brown and Pregnant Family
and we would’ve remembered his schoolin’
and left his bottle
recollected his manners
and brought his right mind
had another klan called him to their bedside
he would’ve come right away
he would’ve never had liquor on his breath
if the color of my daddy’s broken limbs
had matched the color of his own but
We were a Colored Clan of kinfolk
who should’ve met him at the door
shouldn’ve told him lean first into the rusty screen
made him open up his mouth and blow
breathe our right there
into all of our brown and lined up faces
in wait of his worthiness
Then just for good measure
should’ve made him blow once again
into Papa Josh’s truth telling jar
just to be sure
should’ve let Mama Sally
then Aunt Nanny
then lastly Aunt Mary
give him the final once over
and hold his sterile hands
down to the firelight to check
just like she checked our own every night
before supper
before we were allowed to sit
at her very particular table
We could’ve let Aunt Ira clutch him by his chin
enter and leave through his eyes
just like how she came and went through us
everyday at her leisure
She wouldn’ve took care to notice
as she traveled all up and through him
any shaking any sweating
and caught his incapable belligerent incompetence
in time
oh Jesus
We should’ve let Grandpop Robert
have him from the first
should’ve let him pick him up
by the back of his pants
and swirl him around
just like he picked us up
and swirled us around
anytime he caught us lying or lazy
or being less than what we were
We should’ve let Granpop
loose on him from the start
and he would’ve held him up
higheye to the sun
and looked straight through him
Just like he held us up
and then he would have known first
like he always knew first
and brought to us
the very map of is heart
then we would have known
just what his intentions were
with our Carlene
Before we knew his name
or cared about his many degrees
before he dared reach up then inside
our family’s brown globe
while we stood there
some of us throwing good black soil
with one hand
some of us tending close
the good book with the other
believing and trusting
we were ding better
by this one
standing there
with waterfalls funning
screaming whitewater rapids
down our pantslegs
down our pantaloons
to our manyselves
All the while
praying hard
that maybe we were wrong
(please make us wrng)
and One Hundred Proof
smelled the same as
Isopropyl

Originally Published: July 11th, 2007

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...

  1. July 12, 2007
     Tanya Shirley

    Kwame, thanks so much for sharing this.

  2. July 14, 2007
     Samantha Thornhill

    This poem is so very exquisite. It breaks the heart so lovingly. Thanks for posting this Mr. Dawes. I needed this today.

  3. July 15, 2007
     Kwame

    It is truly and elegant poem--one of those difficult pieces.
    One love
    KD