December 19, 2021

Candice M. Kelsey

WHALE SHARKS AND BELL HOOKS

to Savanna

I passed out while diving with whale sharks
At the Georgia Aquarium
When I was celebrating my fifteenth birthday.

My father was in the tank with me, as was
The largest fish in the world,
An ovoviviparous creature whose embryo

Is formed within the egg which then hatches
In the mother’s uterus.
The young are released into the sea fully formed.

Litters can be more than three-hundred pups,
But even weirder is that their teeth
Point backwards and their spot patterns are as unique

As human fingerprints. I had a cold that day
And trouble breathing in my mask—
It’s remarkable when I think about my vulnerability,

Like an astronaut floating in the atmosphere.
They pulled me out, and I was fine
After they gave me a splash of cold air and a shake.

I remembered my grandmother in Scranton,
Who barely spoke English,
And stood in her kitchen for hours rolling cabbage

While I sat in the back seat of a woody station wagon
Coloring my best picture to give her,
My grandmother who had barely spoken to me

For the ten short years of my life. It was a deep sea
Scene from National Geographic’s
Magnificent Ocean: Coloring Book, my companion

On the twelve-hour haul across Ohio
Through the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Chewing gum
And scented markers and the hope of a grandmother’s

Love. When we moved to her back yard to sit
Under the clothesline, I braved
The walk toward Grandma Balish, picture in hand.

She looked at it and nodded, then handed it back
To me. I remember wanting to swim
Like a whale shark, deep into the temperate waters

And away from this humiliation. Today
I read a post on Twitter
About a grandmother who gave her grandchildren

All the pictures they had made her. She had them
In garbage bags, one for each child.
The overwhelming response was warmth and awe

That this grandmother had kept the artwork so long
And returned it out of love. I wept—
In a way, my mother has handed me garbage bags

Of the stuff she kept over the years. I have stored
Them in my body. A hatred for my thighs and belly,
Disgust for my arms, the need for male attention.

Women like bell hooks helped me take out that trash.
I carried a slip of paper in my wallet
The past twenty-five years: If any female feels she need

Anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate
Her existence, she is already giving away
Her power to be self-defining, her agency. These

Are the words bell hooks gave me and a generation
Of women tired of giving ourselves
To people who looked, nodded, and handed us back.

A young girl’s heart is an ovoviviparous creature.
It gives, and it gives endless litters of love
Until it realizes the embryos hatch inside itself.

from Poets Respond
December 19, 2021

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Candice M. Kelsey: “In honor of bell hooks, who passed away this week.” (web)

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