Poem of the Week


Chet’la Sebree

In my adult life, I’ve loved two men—one Black, one white.

For most of my twenties, they both remained in orbit.

You are one of them.

You have to be twice, my mother said.

You have to be twice, Papa Pope said on Scandal, bestowing the same adage.

If I’d had a baby at twenty-three, I would have told it the same thing.

To forget a wound and scratch it issues a special kind of pain—the pain of the wound and the pain of having to acknowledge it’s no longer forgotten.

The second sometimes hurts more than the first. 

It’s easier to move forward knowing that something, anything, if not the river, will stay the same, like a song looped, though only in the digital age.

A scratch in the rimmed memory of a record will render a new permanent forever. 

Sometimes I remember this when I hold my nephew’s face to kiss, when my niece bares all her teeth in the midst of giggling.

Unaccustomed to affirming attention, living in rural centrals and places that bloom red in elections, I am skittish at compliments, shy around the Black guy who smiles as we both browse bookstore aisles.

Twenty-three-year-old me lived in her body.

Note: I returned to our city to write portions of this poem.

Everything has shifted, down to the positioning of things in galleries.

Woman Eating (1971), once a main display, is now in a corner, tucked away.

We didn’t know this world of wireless headphones, the strong, public skunk of marijuana.

About us, the first poem I wrote: “Pot Smoke and Glasses on the Casio.”

But it was really about the first white guy I loved.

(See, there’s a breakdown in my mathematical systems.)

How he needed me like I needed to know I belonged anywhere, to anyone.

The twenty-three in me is a whisper.

After you, I went on a few dates with a straight-edge vegetarian—a medium-build, pillow-lipped Black man.

(I swing hard when I swing to the land of opposites.)

He wanted a good woman, one who would listen.

Because of a lack of respect elsewhere, the men in these scenarios value a measure of subservience and submission from women that is intended to make up for what they can’t receive in the wider world.
—Mikki Kendall

My mom was a young mother turned breadwinner turned boat owner.

I know nothing of subservience, submission.

The vegetarian said he had nothing but respect but frequently did not come correct.

I once stopped him in the middle of a sentence, made the following declaration:

my mom gets buck
my brother carries a gun
and my dad loves me more than

After you, I learned better how I belong to them.

The twenty-three in me is a shout.

I remember telling you that you were worth good things.

From you, I think women before me stole something.

Sometimes I can’t remember if it’s gravel or graphite lodged in my palm, but I know I was wounded, forever altered.

I don’t know where the rupture began.

I don’t think it’s ironic that whole has a hole in it.

It’s hard for me to admit that from me I think you stole something.

What is the distance between dream and nightmare? Between there and terror?

An imperceptible fissure in a tank.

The new forever: the two men I loved are both fathers to daughters and sons.

Me: mother to no one.

Me: mother to dead ova.

Some nights, waves howl at a hidden moon—the sky a cloak of clouds and heat lightning lighting the ominous.

Some nights, mosquitoes feast on me—leaving welts on my newly sunned skin.

Tonight, I’m the kind of ripe where I realize you’re at my fingertips—the ones that traced sun-raw tan lines, wound coils in your thicket.

Perhaps it’s because, tonight, I am ovulating.

Is the Colosseum beautiful because it’s destroyed or because it’s still standing?

For what was my body a vessel? For what will it be?

“(W)HOLE” appears in Field Study by Chet’la Sebree, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in June 2021.

Chet’la Sebree is the author of Field Study, winner of the 2020 James Laughlin Award, and Mistress. She is the director of the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.
Originally published:
May 19, 2021


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