Reading Dante: Alabama, 1950s

I read poetry before I knew what to say to myself.
Fumbling with ornate red-velvet translations, Dante
between brown pasteboard covers, heading straight
down the spiral ramp to hell. The poet leading me
to what was underneath, nether world, nether parts
no one talked about, But I didn’t expect that icy heart,
that cold despair was the biggest sin, like marble
slabs crushing the water at river’s bend, no way out.

I read on until everyone I knew was frozen, flayed,
or fricasseed, I never got to the part where the poet
sees hope. The girl my age veiled in white, beckoning,
I longed for some unknown sharp-edged speech,
for an axe made of words, to lift, to smash, to smash
through. It was my doomed father I followed through
the winter woods. He showed me the rill of water
running along the base of the hill, through the massed
dead leaves. I waded barefoot there in the winter,
in a place where nothing is ever frozen all the way
through.

***

Minnie Bruce Pratt is a white anti-racist, anti-imperialist activist, born in 1946, in Selma, Alabama. Her poetry as a lesbian mother, Crime Against Nature, was chosen for the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets, and recently re-issued by Sinister Wisdom/A Midsummer’s Night Press. Her most recent book is Inside the Money Machine, described by one reviewer as “anti-capitalist poetics in action.” She does organizing with the International Action Center, teaches at Syracuse University, and can be reached at www.mbpratt.org

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