Callie Barr’s Black Bottom

 

In memory of Callie Barr, known in historical record 

as caretaker of William Faulkner’s family

 

 

You may find her behind

          Rowan Oak, a shadow

               of fortress where then now

          you find no real entry place.

Where then now a tree grows

          near that door, purple flower

               heads peeking through into

          the world she left behind.

Here then now she found a home

          as shadow, covering

               it all with her big black

          small frame of big womanness

now then where the cabin creaks.

          You may find somewhere

               her portrait stuck to a wall

          where then now she lingers,

shadows peeking over her face

          to find the proclaimed Mammy

               joy. They leave themselves to

          tell her story, to guess her

age unknown and rounded out.

          Here then now she lies absent,

               erased by the very word—

          entry marked into the bottom

of history where then now

          we find no shadow of life

               as told by her. History carries

          her tale through his and her mouth.

Say: I heard it like this

          now then where she lingers

               on tongues that spit out the bad

          taste to tell a good story.

Say: Here lies Mammy, born

          in bondage, died in devotion

               and love. Where then now

          they opened earth’s

mouth ready to receive her

          body. Stretched that back

               over her. Placed the tombstone

          as muzzle that says: “Mammy.

Her white children bless her,”

          where then now her black children

               listened and watched that doing,

          going back into their shadows

after she lay buried in the maid’s

          uniform as they say she requested.

               Then now there was it

          emblem of her service or her life?

Where then now is Callie?

 

Malcolm Tariq is a poet and playwright from Savannah, Georgia. He is the author of Heed the Hollow (Graywolf Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and Extended Play (Gertrude Press, 2017), winner of the 2017 Gertrude Press Poetry Chapbook Contest. A graduate of Emory University, Tariq has a PhD in English from the University of Michigan and has received fellowships from Cave Canem and The Watering Hole. He lives in New York City.