March 21, 2016

Cherise A. Pollard

SUGAR BABE

A Crown of Sweetelles for Betty Tucker and Harriet Tucker Hunter

1

Betty Tucker birthed eighteen babies, but only six lived.
At least that is what she told the census taker when he
stopped by the house in 1900 to count all who stayed
there. He must have thought, One of these gals has to have a child:
Betty Tucker birthed eighteen babies, but only six lived.
Sure enough, Harriet, barely a grown woman herself,
was there with her baby girls, Maud, three, and Berthena, one.
On the day that ole white man stopped by, did she want to say
something significant about her life, something more than
Yes, I gave birth to eighteen babies, but only six lived?

 

2

On the day that ole white man stopped by, did she want to say
that the first two babies were born while she was still a slave?
That yes, the first one died, a girl, because the granny said she
was just too young, hips too narrow, said there would be time.
On the day that ole white man stopped by, did she want to say
Can you find those babies for me, now grown? They were born
over in Sumpter? Can you do that? If you say yes, I can give you
they names. I won’t speak them ’less you say yes. Then I can only
give you what I called them. No, sir, I don’t know if they alive.
On the day that white man stopped by, what did she want to say?

 

3

That the first two babies were born while she was still a slave,
a decades-old wound that rips open just as the thought
is approached, even crab-like: don’t matter. Hurt comes when she
sees any baby. Even her grands, Maud and Bert, remind her
of the first two babies that were born while she was still a slave.
But, then, she sees her grandmother’s smile in little Bertie’s,
or loves how Maud’s eyes are just like her mother’s when she laughs,
and she remembers that she birthed sixteen as a freed woman,
she got to mother them when well and mourn for them when lost
even if the first two babies were born while she was a slave.

 

4

And she remembered that she birthed sixteen as a freed woman
with a husband on a farm they sharecropped. There was no real
separation between labor and love, for both tried to
wear her down past the marrow, but she had a different plan
’cause she knew she could give new life as a free black woman.
Some say she was tough like that Truth gal who said she could work
as hard as any man, eat like one, too, if she could get
it. Hearty in love and laughter came easy. Betty could
cut a path to joy through grief and pain with a machete!
Birthing the future: loving life as a free black woman.

 

5

Cut a path to joy through grief and pain with a machete
that’s the only way to survive this country woman’s life
so many ways to lose a baby, a child, even grown
folks: accidents, disease, and fevers. Death come creeping so
cut a path to joy through grief and pain with a machete!
White folks might say seize the day, same thing in a way, but I
don’t have the strength or the reach to grab for something that I
just can’t touch (save Jesus, I pray to him). But when I walk
I feel the undergrowth holding me like my fear of death
so I cut a path to joy through grief with a machete.

 

6

The only way to survive this country woman’s life is
to not take a thing for granted, especially not love.
God will always watch over you, and your man may even
protect you, but don’t be fooled by sex or sweetness because
that’s the only way you’ll survive a country woman’s life.
Don’t be afraid to make the world beautiful around you,
to tame wild fields, to cook food you love, to make good friends, and
kill all threats. Hold your children close: There are too many
ways to lose them. I told Harriet, mother hard ’cause that’s
the only way you’re going to survive this country gal’s life.

 

7

Kill all threats, hold your children close. There are too many
ways your attention can be split, that’s why I tried my best
to keep the ones who lived around the house, didn’t let them
play down by the river, or wander off the land, where I’d
killed off all threats, held my children close, cause there are too many
ways death come creeping into any room. I got tired
of fighting him. Last time he came for one of my babies,
I told him, get the hell out of my house, held the Bible
next to my child, Mama came, cleansed this house, this land,
killed all threats, held our family close. Death: there wasn’t any.

 

8

I told him to get the hell out of my house, put the Bible
on the table in the front room so there was no question
this was a house for the living. Taught my babies to pray
and praise the Lord Jesus soon as they could say Mama, ’cause
I told death to get the hell out of my house, put the Bible
in every room where the Lord’s protection was needed. I
worked roots, brewed Granny’s special tea, made Mama’s poultice, but
nothing healed like the word. Mama told me that when I was
just a little girl, helping her tend to the sick, that’s why
I told him to get the hell out with both hands gripping my Bible.

 

9

Worked roots, brewed Granny’s special tea, made Mama’s poultice, but
don’t know how to lay with my husband and not come away
full of baby. After fifteen, thought I was done paying
for my fair portion of Eve’s sin, but then a blessing came!
Worked roots, brewed granny’s special tea, made mama’s poultice, but
you can’t control God’s plan for your life. Thought I was done with
babies, thought Harriet would be the one who stayed with me,
then came three children, two girls and a boy. Some say I was
old as Methuselah, but I didn’t listen, I just
worked roots, brewed tea, made Mama’s poultice, kept my babies alive.

 

10

Then came three children, two girls and a boy. Some say I was
blessed. Those are the ones I listen to. I call my last child,
the girl, Sugar Babe. Born when I was forty-eight, that l’il
Rosana got them sparkling eyes most mamas dream about
the last three children, two girls and a boy. Some say I was
a fool to take a chance on a child so close to fifty,
but who was I to willingly take a child’s life when so
many had been lost? My babies played with my grandbabies:
Harriet had eleven, lost just one boy to rabies.
Finally, three babies. Each one lived. I knew I was blessed.

 

11

Betty Tucker birthed eighteen babies, but only six lived.
On the day that ole white man stopped by, did she want to say
that the first two babies were born while she was still a slave,
and she remembered that she birthed sixteen as a freed woman?
Cut a path to joy through grief and pain with a machete!
The only way to survive this country woman’s life is
kill all threats, hold your children close: There are too many!
I told him to get the hell out of my house, held the Bible,
worked roots, brewed tea, made Mama’s poultice, kept my babies alive.
Finally, three children. Each one lived. I knew I was blessed.

 

Note:
 

A sweetelle is a form created by Allison Joseph. It features ten lines with fourteen syllables—the first, fifth, and tenth repeat. It was originally created as a love song. I consider this entire cycle of poems to be an historical love song, dedicated to my maternal line, traced back as far as I could to Betty Tucker. This is the first crown of sweetelles that has been written, so I have chosen to create a final stanza of the repeated lines.

from Rattle #50, Winter 2015
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist

[download audio]

__________

Cherise A. Pollard: “Betty Tucker is real. She is my great-great-great grandmother. I have seen a photo of Betty’s daughter, Harriet Tucker Hunter, but did not know much about either of them because my own great grandmother, Bertha Hunter Small Joyner, was rather tight-lipped about her childhood in Columbia, South Carolina. I learned as much as I could about Betty’s life through Ancestry.com and from stories from my second cousin, Carmen Aldridge. According to Carmen, Betty was said to be ‘a pistol.’ So, when I sat down to write this poem about a woman who gave birth to so many children, lost so many children, yet still had an incredible spirit, I knew that it deserved to be rendered in a new way, with a new form, the sweetelle.”