after Ted Mathys after anonymous nursery rhyme
This is the key to the kingdom, rustproof
solid brass, cut a long time ago in a galaxy far,
far away, by a man as old as light. I bend down
to test the key, to wait for the perfect click of sound,
for when objects align, smooth grooves of hips that
give and unlock the door, swung open to reveal
the kingdom. Of stars, eternity, kingdom of dark
matter, a father praying to the god of Diana Ross,
rib of Adam half eaten in her right hand, kingdom
of Parliament Funkadelic, a wonder woman blowing
raspberries on her newborn baby’s belly, of super-
nova sea-monkeys, and cosmic abstractions.
In the kingdom there is a country, a mass
of constitution, purple taffeta, a country of clap-
back, of right to privacy and trigger warning color
pallets, a country of whodunit, shorthand prayers,
death row poets who write pastorals, a country
where cops wear windbreakers to work.
In the country there is a police state, a Show-Me state
with a river made of mud, land of compromise, black
lungs choked up on pollution, concealed carry, indecent
exposure to the sun, two bears on hind legs at attention,
where a girl learns her numbers using her father’s broken
ribs, where few are called and many are chosen.
In that state there is a city with a martyr for a name,
a city in the shadow of a taut republic, flag hung over
the Old Courthouse where Dred Scott’s ghost still sits,
where mosquitos sleep in coffins of amber, city of smart-
phones and food deserts, where a woman takes her self-
driving car to her graveyard shift at Waffle House.
In that city there is a shotgun house painted white.
Its small porch where the dogs cool off, their tongues
set loose on the air. The other houses bat vacant eyes
in memory of lace curtains and flower beds. This is
the house where Harriet was born, her mother the last
of a dying breed, Harriet the one who broke the mold.
In that house is the room where Harriet makes a life.
The solar radiation too strong to go outdoors,
bath water collect in buckets compliments of toxic
rain. Most days Harriet spends licking the taste of salt
from her arms and asking her mother to tell her what
the world was like when men still walked amongst trees.
In that room there is a bed, Harriet’s bed, made military
style with silk sheets. Beneath this bed is her home away
from home, a refuge for things outside of her control.
She has counted the wooden slats hundreds of times,
likes to pretend they are a gapped-tooth god who
looks over the children of never-never land.
On the bed there is a satin pillow where Harriet settles
her long hair. Nothing cotton has ever touched her skin.
Her mother slaves to make sure this is the case.
At night, Harriet takes pleasure in flipping the pillow
over to the cool side. A trick she learned from
her father before he was led off in the dark.
Under that pillow there is a gun Harriet’s mother tells
her to use. She is familiar with the gun, she has often
let the barrel rest against her temple as her mother
braids her hair. Her favorite bedtime story the fable
of the land before time. The moral of the tale she knows
by heart: when the men come light yourself up.
In the gun there is a bullet made of lead. The same lead
that wrote its way into her father’s eardrum, the same
lead as the No. 2 pencil stuck inside her mother to
the soldiers’ delight, the same lead Harriet slides between
her lips as she sees the soldier’s boots approach, the pull
of her finger sure and steady, it hardly makes a sound.
In the bullet is a belief in the natural order, lex talionis,
a letter of the law, an E for an eye, a T for a tooth,
death before dishonor, a belief that no one makes it
out of this world alive wrapped in a soft cocoon,
that when the men come to take you away
better they pronounce you dead on arrival.
Belief in the bullet, in its blast to kingdom come
through a virgin girl’s head. Bullet in the gun
in its infinite wisdom, gun fetched from under
the pillow. Pillow on the bed that Harriet
scrambled beneath. Bed where she had
learned to take life in her own hands.
Alison C. Rollins, born and raised in St. Louis city, currently works as a Reference & Instruction Librarian for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the second prizewinner of the 2016 James H. Nash Poetry contest and a finalist for the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Meridian, Missouri Review, The Offing, Poetry, The Poetry Review, River Styx, Solstice, TriQuarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, Vinyl, and elsewhere. A Cave Canem and Callaloo Fellow, she is also a 2016 recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship.