Genealogical Trip to Pulaski, Virginia

L. Renée

The mayfly swarm undulates like the perfect hip
roll, mottled bodies plow brown bodies midair.
Wings fade as fine gossamer in June sun
buoyed by a buzz too quick to be caught
by my eye, which doesn’t want to bear the witnessing:

how nature persists in getting on with it, publicly—
life, sex, death in the span of a day. 
I turn away, overcome by shame. I look through
my Ford’s cracked glass at white mile markers blurring
a black highway. Why does our making always begin

in denial? When I find my great-great grandmother, 
Frances Houndshell in Census records, branded
mulatto and a mother at age 9, I do not wince. I practice
numbness, focus only on getting back to the alpha mama
who owned her own body, her own name, somewhere

off the coast of Ghana or Nigeria, maybe,
where her breath, not her sweat, was enough
currency. In Virginia, it’s common to see the dead
mayflies skip across pavement like flat rocks tossed
sidearmed at a stream’s surface, then lodged 

in sidewalk cracks, among orphaned pebbles, 
sticks and sprigs of grass. I’d rather look 
at uncountable rows of tobacco leaves
which leave me breathless, dizzy even. All those
green ears flap like an elephant’s hello, hang woody

scents heavy through my car vents like next-of-kin
hugs hugged only at family reunions. In death, 
female mayfly lips freeze into an ‘O’ as if readying 
a whistle, as if leaving evidence of ‘no,’ after the males 
give chase, grab their tiny legs, drag them to the ground,

after the mount. It happens like this. Whole lives 
purposed for labor and procreation. Night collects 
her bounty. By daybreak, bodies pile by the hundreds 
on windowsills, in porch corners, in the middle of a passage 
pedestrians stroll between a jail and courthouse. 

The nice white genealogist at the local library tells me 
Frances’ age must be wrong, an error in reporting. 
But I know a nymph can be snatched from her skin, 
molt and molt until she becomes something new,
gains wings, if only for a brief view of the dust 

she will soon call home.

L. Renée is a poet from Columbus, Ohio. She is a second-year MFA candidate at Indiana University, where she serves as the Nonfiction Editor of the Indiana Review and as Associate Director of the Indiana University Writers’ Conference. She is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference, Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and the Green Mountain Writers Conference. She was awarded a National Silver medal in poetry at the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, and a Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Fellowship from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she earned her MS in Journalism.