a foolish controversy over the color of the skin
a woman passing as a pecana woman breaking open a pecan andpassing as its beige meat.a woman passing as a fig tree’s barka woman passing as a figa woman passing as swamp water after rain,and a man passing as a pinewood floor.a man passing as a pianohis voice passing as honey-colored notesfloating above a crowd of masked revelers,a man passing as cypressa man passing as the prow of a ship run agrounda man passing as a bowl of clabberor a bowl of molasses.have you ever heard of such a countrywhere a woman passes for an oak banisterand a man passes for a leather-bound Bible,or a book of law?what you see here is a true phenomenon:a man is disguised as a shoe in need of polishingand a woman is burnished and heavy as a worn saddle.little boys and girls are made of dried sassafras,nutmeg, burnt flour, and clam shells.hold one of our small, round babies in your handsand see how it turns into a chicken’s egg beforeyour eyes.
“a foolish controversy over the color of the skin” takes its title from a quote by poet, journalist, and activist Rodolphe Desdunes, who wrote Our People and Our History: A Tribute to the Creole People of Color in Memory of the Great Men They Have Given Us and of the Good Works They Have Accomplished.
Copyright © 2019 by Irène P. Mathieu
First appeared in Southern Humanities Review, 52.1
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.
Dr. Irène P. Mathieu is a pediatrician and writer. She is the author of Grand Marronage (Switchback Books, 2019), orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017), and the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Narrative, Boston Review, Southern Humanities Review, Callaloo, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. Irène is on the editorial boards of Muzzle Magazine and the Journal of General Internal Medicine‘s humanities section. She has received fellowships from Fulbright, Callaloo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
"Grand marronage—the practice of enslaved folks running away and creating their own communities—is a tradition of freedom-making. Mathieu taps into this tradition, highlighting the creativity and resilience found within her family history. Grand Marronage tells a story that cannot be found in history books. It is the story of Louisiana—and America—that lives in bodies, bones, and the earth. The images she creates will stay with me."
—LaKisha Michelle Simmons
"Grand Marronage is a remarkable book, resolved to regard the difficulties and beauties of the past and present, to acknowledge the forces that would seek to control how both are seen, and to find the strength of its own steady gaze. These poems have a wild and courageous openness, full of intelligence and heart. The poet records 'the dual wishes for her children to / write their own and to remember / the names of every ancestor before.' Grand Marronage makes a space where those wishes can breathe and grow."
"Irène Mathieu brings us a vision across generations of black womanhood, one that crosses ocean, myth and language. This is a solemn, sweet bite of poetry that reminds us how the past is only a skin away from our present."