Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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What Yields

The following sonnet corona relates to the eleven slave women who were the medical experimental subjects of Dr. James Marion Sims of Mount Meigs, Alabama, between 1845 and 1849. Each woman suffered from fistula, a condition created by traumatic childbirth. Sims performed a series of surgeries without the use of anesthesia. To keep the women subdued, he addicted them to opium, which he would only administer after the surgeries, for pain. In addition to pain relief, opium contributed to memory loss and confusion, which are explored in this poem. By 1850, Sims declared he had successfully healed fistula and published his findings. At the time, he was considered a pioneer in the field of gynecology. He left Alabama for New York and traveled internationally, gaining fame and wealth.
            —Kwoya Fagin Maples

The day we were born, we belonged to you.
These clay-sculpted women—yours. There is no
respite to offer—such exquisite wrongs do
remain. Our vulvas: the future you wrote

against the back of your hand. Born to be
seen by you, we are the bodies you
strive against. The triangle axis gleams.
It is June, your glinting silver blade new—

you—slick as butter. So yours, we wonder
if the saliva in our mouths is still
ours. We’re denied water to protect sutures.
My parched tongue circles for wisps

of spit. You could leave me this one thing. Thief,
all night you drink water from my body.


All night you drink water from my body.
You sneak from your bed, taking the worn way
toward the wood shack over the chickweed
and white clover. We call it shack. You say,

hospital. You stop bedside, and full of  
need you straddle me, squat down, your haunches
hovering low, graze my throbbing vulva.
You claw the back of my neck so my head

falls aside like a pansy, then you call
for the water in my body to rise.
Come up, you sing. Dizzied and stunned I watch  
it rising like so many beads of wine.

In the mornings I am bare. I am shut.
I am dead where I lie, already plucked.


I am dead where I lie, already plucked.
Yet all afternoon, sir, I have risen
up out of this whiteness—out of its touch
I come and though my mind is dim

I will say no, split your trembling lip by
my refusal. I’ve been longing to see
the rush of blood to your mouth, your pink lie
distended, the flush of blood to your cheeks.

I’ve been reaching for the surface to show
what my fists can do. My eyes reach for you
out of reach. I am too much to feel, too
impossible to be known. All afternoon

you slept in down, snug against your wife’s dove back.
Bodies above virtue are never black.


Bodies above virtue are never black:
sprawling dewberries grow along your fence;
since most days we are hungry, we take
them—fill hemp sacks we hide against our hips.

When each bite unravels in our mouths
we imagine a sweeter history
and more hope than you could ever allow.
Desperate, we gorge on dewberries—

the heady berries and our molars’ slow
grinding drown out the distant cries of
thief. Crushed berry over berry over
berry, this joy—the closest thing to love.

Sated, we hide the blue-stained sacks again.
Our eyes blink back the river to be lost in.


Your eyes blink back the river to be lost in.
You clutch your elbows, pacing the sickroom
walled with basswood, eleven beds sinking
like monuments into a red clay floor.

Our bodies taut in their sheets, locked in place,
calculating your restraint. We keep our
breath, waiting. Then you begin your complaint:
we aren’t trying to heal. Unchecked urine

in our wet beds instead of the waste pail.
Piss compromises the stitches and we
know it. And how many times must you tell
us to lie still? You leave us. There will be

no dosage today. The held cries lift.
First, you’d have to consider us women.


First, you’d have to consider us women,
realize our hearts beat under the bush.
You’d have to think my heart longed like yours
and that my mind wasn’t mindless, awash

with nothing. I am a hot quaking body—
prime material subject. To you,
I am only worth what can be gleaned.
And you would have to know I meet the pain

how your wife would: imagine her blushed pink
frame, gap-legged like a birth-slick colt, quaking.
But you cannot hold both of us in mind
at once. My ability to bear is

immeasurable. Pain discriminates.
Material subject—I am rabbit.


Material subject. I am rabbit.
I skitter the path to crooked river,
scratch up the perfect stones and carry them
to my litter and when they clamor to nurse—

their soft seeking nostrils nudging my teats—
I beat their bodies, stoned against the rocks
I trample, crush red skulls, dash. Panting
blood into the grass, their buff fur bodies

set in an array of poses, the weeds
bowed down, draining blood that will not cry out.
My babies sink into the ground, drowning.
I am only fit to be without.

I swallow the last stones. Your shadow looms.
Now, the whole earth has turned to look at you.


Now, the whole earth has turned to look at you.
And we see the gray hairs curling out of
your nose. We nod off like pine trees as you
stitch. Always sighing, you hover

over us. Fool, we know you will never
be done, though you promise promise promise
it will work this time. We’ve grown wiser
to your kindness. We watch you thread our missed

days and nights. Your needle unmends our seams.
Silk? Catgut? You should have known the catgut
would fester. How careless can you be?
Did your dumb mama drop you dumb? You smug

reckless thief. The whole earth can hear you breathe.
Even the clouds agree: we’re dead where we sleep.


Even the clouds agree: we’re dead where we sleep.
Between sleep and waking my gaze follows
yours as you scan the room of destiny.
Picking through the moss of your mind so

carefully, you decide who you will heal
today. Your hair has grown gray right above
the ears, you could be a wren standing near,
shifting foot to foot in the door, nervous.

You pull out the notes from your leather bag,
reading and murmuring through surgeries—
failures, the almosts bore against our backs.
Every note marked becomes the symphony

you compose, and yes, we will render it.
We are rotting fruit, yet our bodies yield.


We are rotting fruit, yet our bodies yield.
How easily we yield to you, for you.
We slide into our poses, blossoming.
You examine our stalks for blight, mildew

and rust. One morning your eyes examine
the field and we are ripe. Through sixteen
seasons you have tended us, kept us tilled
and well-drained. You’ve cultivated after each

rain and sewed crimson clover in the rows
between us. Not one boll weevil has stained
our leaves. With care, you have nourished the soil.
And now, the time has come for you to claim

the crop that you’ve sewn. Your harvest will be.
We must yield, even if you lie to reap.


We must yield, even if you lie to reap.
Untuck the lie from the roof of your mouth
and set it free. If you write it, it will be.
It will set right the frown on your wife’s

lips, make it worth it. Is it worth it?
Her unspoken question, she doesn’t see
what wealth can be gained from digging into
an empty woman. She never believed

it was mending when she heard wails sound
their way up to the house, sounds like rabbits
dying she’d said, but never fixed her mouth
to help us. Write history, it will be.

Try out the words in your mouth. We’re healed.
The day we were born we belonged to you.  

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