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Swerve

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I think of the man who sat
behind my grandmother’s sister
in church and told her
the percentage of Indian
in her blood, calling it out
over the white pews.
I wonder what made
him want to count it
like coins or a grade.
I wish I could hear him
now when I think of her
saying that all
the Wampanoag blood
in her body would
fit in one finger,
discounting the percentage
it seemed, but why was she
such a historian, tracing
the genealogy of the last
Wampanoag up to her own
children, typing it all on see-through
paper? Maybe like me
she felt a little self-conscious
caring about what
we’re made of
instead of simply being
satisfied dressing
our bodies and driving
them around.
Maybe she felt shy
for loving someone
she’d never met, I mean
I do. I think of the knife
cutting into flesh
and the fork carrying it
to your mouth.
I always think
of that, the scythe-
like movement,
single motion, a swerve.
I think of my relative, the last
Wampanoag in the town,
walking the streets
with a dollar
the town gave him.
Even then what would
a dollar buy, a finger
of land? If an Indian
could have bought land.
I think of walking
into the almshouse. The alms
falling like figs from trees,
something to gnaw on.
I think of the first time
of thanks
before it had a name,
when it was just some
relatives of mine keeping
some relatives of yours
alive through a cold winter,
people stupid enough
to take food from a graveyard,
food meant for the dead.
Source: Poetry (September 2009)

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This poem originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

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Swerve

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  • Kelle Groom was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Florida, Hawaii, Spain, and Texas. Her collections of poetry include Underwater City (2004); Luckily (2006), which won a Florida Book Award; and Five Kingdoms (2010), also a Florida Book Award winner. Her poems and writing have appeared in the New Yorker, The Best American Poetry, The Best American Non-Required Reading, Ploughshares, and elsewhere.

    Groom's memoir of adoption, alcoholism, and the death of her infant son, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (2011), was an editor's choice selection for the New York Times, Oxford American, and O Magazine, and was named a best memoir of 2011 by Library Journal.

    The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, Groom has also been awarded fellowships from the Black Mountain Institute, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in partnership with the Library of Congress, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, among others. Currently...

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