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Poet's Choice: 'Ethel's Sestina' by Patricia Smith

By Patricia Smith
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Herbert Freeman Jr., his mama's only son, had spent his entire life at his mother's side. After she raised him, he moved next door. As she grew frail, he moved in with her again.

In the wretched days following Hurricane Katrina, Herbert and his mother waited for rumored rescue from New Orleans' Morial Convention Center. They waited for three days. She died on Sept. 1, 2005, just after asking her son -- yet again -- if the buses were coming.

When the rumbling calvary finally did appear and Herbert was urged to evacuate, he wrote his name and contact number on a piece of paper and positioned it near his mother's hands. Then, for the first time, he left her. After news photographs showed Ethel Mayo Freeman draped in someone else's poncho and curled like a comma in her wheelchair, the 91-year-old woman became a country's abandonment and a sweet city's fall.

In writing this persona poem in Ethel's voice, I wanted her to triumph. I chose the form of sestina (six end words repeated in varying order in each stanza) because it mirrored the way elderly women speak, returning again and again to the same idea, the comfortable words.

(Patricia Smith will be a featured presenter at the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry and Prose Pavilion at the National Book Festival sponsored by the Library of Congress. The festival will take place on September 26 on the National Mall from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)

Editor's Note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.

ETHEL'S SESTINA

Gon' be obedient in this here chair,

gon' bide my time, fanning against this sun.

I ask my boy, and all he says is Wait.

He wipes my brow with steam, says I should sleep.

I trust his every word. Herbert my son.

I believe him when he says help gon' come.

.

Been so long since all these suffrin' folks come

to this place. Now on the ground 'round my chair,

they sweat in my shade, keep asking my son

could that be a bus they see. It's the sun

foolin' them, shining much too loud for sleep,

making us hear engines, wheels. Not yet. Wait.

.

Lawd, some folks prayin' for rain while they wait,

forgetting what rain can do. When it come,

it smashes living flat, wakes you from sleep,

eats streets, washes you clean out of the chair

you be sittin' in. Best to praise this sun,

shinin' its dry shine. Lawd have mercy, son,

.

is it coming? Such a strong man, my son.

Can't help but believe when he tells us, Wait.

Wait some more. Wish some trees would block this sun.

We wait. Ain't no white men or buses come,

but look -- see that there? Get me out this chair,

help me stand on up. No time for sleepin',

.

cause look what's rumbling this way. If you sleep

you gon' miss it. Look there, I tell my son.

He don't hear. I'm 'bout to get out this chair,

but the ghost in my legs tells me to wait,

wait for the salvation that's sho to come.

I see my savior's face 'longside that sun.

.

Nobody sees me running toward the sun.

Lawd, they think I done gone and fell asleep.

They don't hear Come.

.

Come.

Come.

Come.

Come.

Come.

Come.

Ain't but one power make me leave my son.

I can't wait, Herbert. Lawd knows I can't wait.

Don't cry, boy, I ain't in that chair no more.

.

Wish you coulda come on this journey, son,

seen that ol' sweet sun lift me out of sleep.

Didn't have to wait. And see my golden chair?

.

Reprinted from "Blood Dazzler," by Patricia Smith, Coffee House Press, 2008.

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