“My Grandmother Listens to Mahalia Jackson” and Other Poems, by Maura High


"I sing God's music because it makes me feel free.” 

In the kitchen damp 
with towels drying,
the light grey outside 
the window, outside 
the net curtain, the panes 
misty, she dries 
her hands on her apron 
and stops work.
She stands 
to hear Mahalia, singing, 
far away, outside
the measured hymns
of chapel, outside 
the valley, the circumscribing 
hills and slagheaps.
Mahalia is singing 
from a place
this woman knows only
from papers and the radio,
but knows
it is a hard place 
and that the song 
rises out of it, 
The voice laps
and croons, swings 
way, way to heaven,
and hails, and shouts, 
wild like the wind
battering the slate roof 
and the drainpipes,
runnels of soot 
down the chimney, 
like the clouds,
like the heart.
Mahalia sings to her, 
as David’s harpist
sings to her, 
Yea, in the Valley, 

He flies, like a cosmonaut, all day and all night, 
attached by tubes to air, to blood, to milk, and 
by her voice and latex-fingered touch to his mother.
What strange new world that hath
such lights, such jangles in it,
and what weight to bear
on bird-bone shoulders. But his rib cage
rises after each fall, his heart
pumps its milliliters of blood,
accompanied by the hiccups of the monitor
and by our own slow strong beats 
marking time from near and far.


May your eyes find their mark
may your mouth suckle
may you turn toward my voice 
may your hand grasp my finger
may your foot pull back
may your colon expel feces
may you piss generously
may you spit up
may you grizzle and wail
may you smile at us


You dream
the colors and configurations
of comfort and discomfort,
knowing already cold and hunger
distance, loss.
Forgive us,
We too believed
in the happy ever after
but will settle for here and now:
your small weight in our arms and your lips
parted, as if to say, “Oh.”


The doll cried what I
Wanted to cry, the inconsolable
Repetitive maa-maa
Bleating from the rose

Of perforations in its back.
My father had just died,
And my mother stood 
At the sink, back turned,
Peeling potatoes.  
She wanted not to frighten us
Or herself, as I want,
Now she's dead and past 

Caring, to let her mourn, 
To bring her back
And let her sit, lumpy 
And disheveled on the sofa.

Her freckled arms sag
Between her knees.  She stares
Through us children, and lets
The tears smear and dribble

Down her face.  Her nose
Runs, but she doesn't wipe it.
He's gone,  she whispers.
What will become of me.

Maura High was born in Wales. As a child, she moved with her family from country to country, and then taught in secondary schools in Nigeria before emigrating to the United States. She now lives and works, as an editor and translator, in North Carolina. A chapbook, The Garden of Persuasions, was published by Jacar Press, and other poems have appeared in online and print journals and anthologies.

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