The Ballad of Laura Nelson

Read this poem, based on four photographs by George Henry Farnum of the lynching of Laura Nelson and her son in 1911 near Okemah, Oklahoma.

| August 2019

 blue-river
Photo by Getty Images/rvimages.


 

       a. picture of evil #2898

Mama Laura

hangs from the eave

of a bridge

dress like a nightgown

crook in her neck

feigning sleep

bare feet & fingers swollen

with death’s whiskey

 

this is the morning after

the mob stormed the jail

found her dark & vicious

like a coyote cornered on

a Guthrie-guilty road

 

this is the morning after

she was stretched &

slaughtered by the stampede

made haint

of truss & trestle

made wild in the wind

like a panther prowling

a Guthrie-guilty song

 

       b. picture of evil #2897

bridge like an ark

lined with livewire bodies

ladies with wide hats

parasols & children

like shark teeth

the river’s brush

holds their dirty secrets

coiled words gliding

across troubled water

evil themes in the overgrowth

american justice

in its infancy

 

some dared say

there was a baby

left yonder by the riverside

the birds & bees

& butterflies

pickin out its eyes

 

       c. picture of evil #2894

once

i accused a Boy of stealing

a line of pretty black horses

a line about a book

a book named for a lullaby

sung by a mammy

i accused him of a stealing a line about

a land of unimaginable iniquity

 

& so his Mother marched

to the Principal’s office

pulled my poems from her purse

held them twisted like innards

torn like petticoats

a bunch of river reeds in her hand

bruised with highlighter marks

those scarlet letters

raked between us

with the teeth of pony combs

she said i was a thief of allusions

the Principal called for a moment

of silence

 

then the Mother

wringing hands & poems

apologized:

“i’m just a bear for my son”

(i’m just a virgin mary for my son)

(i’m just a betsy ross for my son)

(i’m just a rosie the riveter for my son)

 

i had a little son then

a black-brown watermelon

seed of a boy

 

& in a moment of silence

i became even more grizzly

the Boy’s plagiarized words

became endangered bears

i had skinned

with my eyes

 

she said that shit to me:

i’m like a bear for my son

& i thought

sister, if you are the bear

i am a cunt like a bear-trap

the worst evil

you can imagine

that bear you thought you saw

that you didn’t see

the evil you see

that ruins me

yeah, she said that shit to me

& i went wild inside & it

               has never stopped

                        the going wild

                                  inside

 

       d. picture of evil #2899

how you protect

a Boy from that bridge

how do i protect my Boy

from that bridge

when you are protecting

the bridge with your Boy

 

i’m going to braid & coat

his little tongue

with the iron edge of truth

the sweetgrass memory of the river

so he’ll know those tastes

above all others

 

you Pilgrim, you Cowboy, you Reader

there is nothing unimaginable about iniquity

this, our land, of iniquity

of tis of thee

on which we bear children

considered burdens

on which we farm barren wombs

of unbearable blackness

in these forests

full of men more terrible

than encroaching bears

looking right

into the camera

 

 


Excerpted with permission from Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice, edited by Ron Riekki and Andrea Scarpino, published by Michigan State University Press, 2019.

undocumented-book-cover




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