Destiny Hemphill is a poet and healer based in Durham, NC. She is a 2017 Callaloo Fellow and 2016 Amiri Baraka Scholar at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program. Her work has appeared in Scalawag, Narrative Northeast, and Button Poetry.
prophecy for when you try to return
the first language
they teach you
to speak is loss
when you get here
they will hold your mouth
open with their fingers
& sink their teeth
into your tongue
it’s all a simple grammar lesson, really:
trauma made home in your body
as soon as your body became
trauma is your body becoming
trauma on your body becomes
familiar & strange
through trauma, your body has become
don’t believe those
who try to convince you
the language of recovery
is somehow more
besides they won’t teach you
that shit anyway
some shit you have to learn
on your own
& this livin ain’t easy
skin sticky & salty
taught me everything i know about
red dust on the soles of gran nellie’s size 13 feet
size 13 feet attached to 4’11 frame
now teach me everything
i needa know about
don’t you always be grieving for me
don’t you always be taking from me
yeah sometimes they visit me
in my dreams
seeking a sanctuary
i won’t ever find
moon be jealous of how the sun
stay trapped beneath my flesh
specters dancing with the congregants
on revival nights
i call them angels
they cast out the demons
we be neither
just haints waiting to be called home
i wrote my elegy so you wouldn’t have to
or what you can tell your folx when they ask about me
yes, i know what it is to be
born from cosmic woundedness
no, i don’t claim to be a beam of light
you were there, so you should remember
how our gods held us beneath their tongues
like pills, like secrets
how we cried for them to set us free
how they refused to let us
spill forth until one day
before we could kick into
their bloodstreams, they kicked us out
they spat us out &
we came out constellation
yes, that’s right. your kinfolx
who ask about me should know
i come from the stars
no, i’m no beam of light
yes, i am the burning
but mostly the pockets of black heaven,
snapshot #1: lee clara in her sunday best ( c. 1970)
every sunday morn
my aunt l.c.
would be the first one
in the first pew
to & fro
to & fro
to & fro
wringing her hands
like they were drenched
from her mouth
afraid to plea for god’s protection
over her prodigal son
afraid not to
call on a hand
she thought more powerful
than her own
to guide her wayward son
who she thought lost his way
when he turned from god’s face
& from her bosom
down a path that
led to california
where he found some dreams
wednesday through sunday
to & fro
to & fro
to & fro
from california to texas
in his white caddy
until he finally
after fucking around
with the wrong muthafucka
called his mama
to tell her
he needed to buy
entry #13 from glossary of selected terms found in the lost blues
every day i mark wake up from my to-do-list. cuz. within the black cosmological nihilist tradition. i know. waking up in this world. be miracle. achievement. not given. nor birthright. birthright be death. flesh|born(e) rotting. & now you understand. why mother darlene & deacon curlie stomp their feet. & twirl. let the choir|sing ‘going up yonder’
because some mothers have witches for daughters
you feel your mother feel herself
losing you even as you
do not feel yourself being lost.
she don’t recognize
the way you pray anymore.
hasn’t gotten used
to the change
in your holy chants.
she knows things about you
that you do not yet know about yourself.
that’s why those spells you be folding
in your voice that somehow convince others
that you are fine don’t work on her. they don’t soothe her.
mystic ain’t the same thing as fine.
while others are too mesmerized
to be scared by the glow of embers
that pop from your every exhale
she scrunches her nose up.
she smells the haunting on you.
she smells the tears you cried
last night & this morning on you.
she smells you burning.
she knows there is something
miracle about that, but she still don’t like it.
she still don’t like watching her baby burn.
there’s always been something
strange about you.
always been something
phantom about you.
always been phantom got your tongue about you.
always been phantom is your tongue about you.
something life about you. yet something so death, too.
somethingsoothsayer about you. something lingering on you.
she been known this even before
the mothers done told her so. you remember.
she took you to them
when you were three years old. they formed a
circle around you. smelling like rosewater &
peppermints & menthol cough drops. hands looking like
& feeling like mahogany.
they all inhaled your smoke deeply.
you remember that
black woman meditative groan.
mmhmmm. something about this one, they said.
they opened your mouth &
stuck pressed flowers against the roof.
rubbed some salve at your temples.
massaged dried fruit & oil on your feet.
back then you were so happy. you did not understand
but thought they were adorning you. now, you are so sad
& you don’t understand but know they were anointing you.
preparing you. protecting you. trying to.
she stands at the foot of your bed
sometimes when you are sleep.
to make sure you are still breathing.
you always are. even when you don’t wanna be.
she can tell because you have a rattle in your chest
as though you’re moving things
around in your heart space.
she sees you furrow
your brows & clench your jaws.
knows that you are watching people
you thought loved you withdraw from you.
recede. tuck their love back
in their pockets & in their socks & run madly away.
she hears you rummaging
in your heart, throwing parts of yourself away
to make room for them in case they come back.
she remembers when she had dreams like that.
she pleads with you in your slumber,
when you wake, let them go, let them go.
don’t let them burn my baby at the stake.
you know she wonders where you got your witch ways.
when did you become more moon than sun?
does she forget how you learned to fight
with god from her? & to fast? & to intercede?
does she forget how her own mama don’t understand
her god nor their language nor her dance nor her trance?
does she forget that she taught you everything
there was about being divine & sacred?
does she forget how she promised
that you would be more brave than her?
does she forget that that was a promise? that it is fulfilled.
even as each of you turn away to pray to y’all’s god
please, please don’t take her away from me.
does she not hear that as the same supplication?
even if in a different accent.
& so it is. & so it be.