Caroline Changes Her Name to Dundess, 1910
When I married John, his name was Dundas, Scot-English,
not the name he was born with in an Irish tenement
in Jersey City just over the river from New York,
parents not long off the boat.
I knew about reinventing yourself, up from the South
after a war that had torn our country apart. Me born
as my father was about to depart, my mother dead
after childbirth. I was farmed out to a mulatto family.
Up North, I called myself Indian when I came to care
for the children after John's wife died. Exotic to a man
claiming to be a Scot, we married.
He was older than me by 10 years, a teamster by trade.
Spent his days with horses on Philadelphia streets,
a drayman, always a pair of reins between his hands.
He was dead by 48, a good provider, a hard life.
I hired myself out as a maid. Kept the children close.
Covered every table in the house with lace. Restored
their Catholic faith. Started going by the name John
was born with, because I knew what it was like
to have a history disappear. But I let the wild Indian
married to a Scot be what they carried into the world.
I knew about color and upbringing. Their father knew
about country and faith. We both knew the reasons
for becoming someone else.
Clara: Petrol and Whitesboro, 1933
The evening was windless and fettered by sadness…
There’s an odor of petrol and lilacs
I haven’t told Joseph, but tomorrow I will drive
to Whitesboro to find a maid, someone to cook,
clean, and care for our daughters while I work.
Consolidated School has hired me.
I laugh when I hear my oldest in conversation
with a neighbor who asks what religion we are,
and she replies, “Consolidated,” because here
it is the school you go to that defines who you are.
I like her answer, all of us more a part of where
we reside, any synagogue school way too far.
It’s a barb in my husband’s side for me to hire
a black maid. But there’s so little I know about
the people who once were slaves. Whitesboro,
named after one of Booker T. Washington’s
lawyers, was designed for Southern blacks
to escape persecution, but also for workers in
the hotels and boarding houses of local resorts.
I want to understand those who we’ve excluded
from Wildwood Villas and a country that would
have Pushkin, descended of an African prince,
live in a town called Whitesboro.
Joseph: Off a Cliff of Shoals, 1932
Dear Tanya, you’re condemned to perish;
but first, the dreams that hope can cherish
evoke for you a somber bliss;
Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, Chapter Three, XV
My dear Clara, something in your temperament
is provoked by these most desolate of winters,
where the wind off bay roars not far from the Atlantic,
over the deep channel off a cliff of shoals.
William Penn spent a season and—even that Quaker
in an escape from lands where beliefs were expected
to be similar—judged the harshness beyond what he
could weather and moved his fledgling colony up-river.
I worked any job I could, saved, paid for passage
for my parents, you, and your brother.
I can make for us a life in freedom unimaginable
from where we come, our country torn from revolution.
A degree in agriculture from Cornell convinced
these yeoman whalers I could make them prosperous.
They had scraped out a living from what no one since
the natives had wanted, guarding it as treasure.
Please stay as long as you can.
I know what I’m doing.
This is the prescience my feet knew
as soon as they stepped on these shores.
Kyle Laws' collections include Wildwood (Lummox Press); George Sand’s Haiti (co-winner of Poetry West’s 2013 award); My Visions Are As Real As Your Movies, Joan of Arc Says to Rudolph Valentino (dancing girl press); Storm Inside the Walls (little books press); Going into Exile (Abbey Chapbooks); and Tango (Kings Estate Press). Her manuscript, So Bright to Blind, has been selected by Five Oaks Press for publication in 2015. She is editor of Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press. www.kylelaws.com