The girl-head that stands for me on Grams’s bracelet does not have my protrusive nose. The boy-heads, engraved with my brothers’ English names, have smooth hair, not my brothers’ jewfros. Each charm our grandmother puts on layaway at Kent’s marks a birth of us, ascendant. Cast in gold, American issue, our faces would pass for Christian in the country she fled. Thus we weigh down the unimprisoned arm of her—Beatrice, our diminutive ancestress—and the arm of every Jewish grandmother in Framingham. Half-liquid, deeply tanned women, in cat-eyes. They can hear each other coming blocks away. Hineni. Here we are: a jangle-tingle returns, across the Atlantic, from the never threatened grandmothers of Lutsk.
“Tasha is deciding whether to be more ‘African,’ ” my mother says on the phone. Tasha is mom’s caregiver. Her fiancé wants her to wear mudcloth wraps. Tasha wears fitted sheaths. The fiancé wants Tasha with natural hair. She has a smooth weave. About this question, mom does not think Tasha should or should not change her look. She throws the couple a party when they get engaged. The husband leaves Tasha months after the wedding even though she did, I see in the photos, ‘Africanize.’ Is this a poem about a black home health aide working for a white woman? “Turn up the TV,” I hear mom say in the background. A woman’s last day? Tasha says, “I put olive oil on your mother’s lips.” A man demands a woman wrap herself in his idea. But that’s not what this poem is about. It’s about care. Do you hear? The TV is so loud it drowns out the memory of my mother’s voice. It drowns out Tasha’s lavender suede thigh boots.
Like the blind creeping of a baby marsupial the size of a pencil eraser, the opening of awareness is a little hard to take. When a friend comes out as “homosexual-friendly,” he says: “this movie is gay as hell, but that’s okay!” No wonder your hesitation when you would like to compliment the queer barista on their hair, their fabulous hair, in Cincinnati, where nothing is fabulous, in the suburbs near mom’s assisted living. You decide to say, I love your hair. They look pleased, it’s clearly okay: stop talking now. But you don’t. I hope it’s all right to say that, you say, as if to make up for all of the world’s ills, which only releases them. You are weird as a half-born bandicoot head. Here comes your cappuccino.
Joy Katz has three poetry collections. Her new manuscript, The Color Cure, documents every minute of whiteness in her life. For her work, she has been honored with fellowships from the NEA, The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Barbara Deming Fund and other organizations. She lives and teaches in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she collaborates in the anti-racist art collective Ifyoureallyloveme.