Bessie’s Resurrection (book excerpt)

Kimberly Collins’s new book of poems, Bessie’s Resurrection, is forthcoming from Indolent Books on March 1, 2019. In this book, a character Bessie is drawn from the character of Bessie Mears in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son (1940) and fictionalized along with two trailblazer African American women who lived during the same period and share her name: the blues singer Bessie Smith and aviator Bessie Coleman. Bessie’s Resurrection is available to pre-order.


EEE you sinners, hear my call
Satan’s waiting for you all
Better get your souls washed white
Better see the light … AMEN

—Bessie Smith, “Moan, You Moaners”

A Long Blues Note

And it’s a small church on the Negro side of town where they gather, shoulder strong as one voice in their Glory to God. Praising him for the trouble they’ve seen, and the low valleys made high. There is no casket for this woman named Bessie. The Coroner took her for bodily evidence. It is a misery memorial for a brown girl dead. It could have been any of these cinnamon-, cumin-colored souls. Somebody needs to cry for her. Their sagging shoulders slumber against one another until one of the Church mothers breaks ranks with the somber sleepers to raise her floral hanky and asks the Preacher: “Why Bessie?!”


Blue, blue, I got a tale to tell you, I’m blue
Something comes over me, daddy, and I’m blue about you.
Listen to my story, and ev’rything ’ll come out true.

—Bessie Smith, “Blue Blues”

Bessie Who?

for Sonia and Monifa

I was unseen like you
The one they call Bitch
The one erased like me

My dear sister, when they said all you need
is some dick, we all became nameless vapor.

My silence helped slay you.
My wilted voice helped
crown their fabulous cocks.

My dear sister, We become one
tongue to take back our names.

Baffled, I stood silent. I let them defame women.
Women who give birth groans, blues moans,
Nzinga war cries and Sojourner screams

waiting to throw their words back at them in a poem.


Bessie Answers the Woman Question

Reporter: How do you think your flying will help the women of your race?

Crape myrtle trees, cushion in Momma’s
lilac bushes. I birthed me. I gathered
myself from Waxahachie dust, white oil
sunbaked. I spoke myself into Being.
There’s a school I’ll build, a race who needs
wings to speed up things. I don’t care what
they say about me.
The sky got me. It holds everything new.

Reporter: What about your fall?

Tell them all: as soon as I can walk, I’m going to fly!


They talkin’ to the spirit,
Just like you see and hear it
They’re sinful and they fear it

—Bessie Smith, “On Revival Day”

Blues Manifesto

Misty blues notes—diced
field hollers bounce off shack walls
promising justice


Glory glory,
Hymns are purifyin’,
Glory glory,
Wash my sins away!
Lawdy lawdy,
Heal just like a lion,
Lawdy lawdy,
I’m reborn today!

—Bessie Smith, “On Revival Day”

Bessie’s Last Song

I’m racing against a sun about to wink
racing against a rooster’s holler
I want the moon to jump its own shadow
I plead for a stay of grace

I want to wane with an orange ray
stinging my day licked skin
Still got work I gotta get done
Still got songs I gotta get sung

I’m racing against a sun about to wink
racing against a field hand’s holler
a moon about to jump its own shadow
pleading for a stay of grace on Rt. 61


Singing “Hallelujah,”
“Blood ub da lamb”
Let your voices rise
Hear me talkin’ to ya
Ain’t got no time to sham

If you wanna to get to paradise
Repent without a doubt
Let the good lord hear you shout
Religion turns you inside out

—Bessie Smith, “Moan, You Moaners”

Why Bessie?

Church! I wanna ask you, “Why not Bessie?”

Ah when you ask the Lord “Why me?” He says, “Why not you?”

Does anyone know what I’m talkin’ bout?

Bessie was like any of you. She was black. She was female. She was poor. She was in love. She was a daughter. She was a hard worker just like any of you.

“Why Bessie?” “Why not Bessie?”

Her name conjures up sleeping souls rocked in the belly of slave ships. Her blues first explode there in the bowels of this hellish ship that docked her and our forefathers on this foreign shore.

She came—womb weary having dumped her load in Yemaya’s arms. She expels more seeds in planted rows after drinking Pennyroyal tea. This was her open revolt. She refused to birth anyone that wasn’t free.

Her name is synonymous with both beast and wo-man. Teeth checked. Nipples pinched. Private parts probed in public places by pale-faced peeping toms.

She is a muddied map of southern red clay stuck to her heels, plowing through stubborn earth, pulling weight that is never hers to turn over soil to steal a yam to cook to remind her of home—where festivals welcomed the yams’ arrival.

Church! I say, Church!

Ah know Bessie Mears ain’t the first Bessie you knowd?! Who don’t know an Aunt Bessie, Cousin Bess, Grandma Bessie, Momma Bessie, Queen Bessie or that woman called Empress that y’all sneak to the juke joint to see? Even Mr. got a mule named Bessie!

Her name is a collective song moaned into meaning. It means she knows something about somebody trying to ride the “Will” outta you.

It means her gnarled knuckles will not allow rings of deceit to slide over them for an unkempt promise.

It means her unlettered words from her fire breath speak her bruised beauty out of boxed lives.

Bessie is the celestial charmer—the secret keeper of the soil’s healing power. Bessie’s name hums meaning into lives which are real and imagined and hard.

Her name like her life was a subtle blues note—a slow moan heard while spooning stew.

And Church! I say Church!

On that day when we thought she died. When they pulled her body out that cold chute, it was more than her that was raised from that place.

No! Brothers and Sisters, Bessie didn’t die in that chute.

When she came up, all those Bessies who wear iron harnesses around their shoulders and on their backs dragging unwanted weight rose up too.

Yesssss!

All those Bessies who waited upon the Lord had their strength renewed and mounted up with wings as eagles; they ran and were not weary no more.

All those Bessies whose mouths were silenced with leather bits came out with her that day.

They escaped Shadrach, Abednego, and Meshach’s fiery furnace of woe.

She was Jesus who suffered the blunt trauma to his skin but not his spirit to rise again asking, “Do you remember me?”

Church! Do you remember him? The one that died on Calvary, nailed to a wooden cross.

You ask, “Why?! Why Him?! This mighty lamb of the world.”

Why?!

Why Bessie?

A woman who looked just like you blending all our knighted memories of kingdoms and Queens buried in the dust tracks of our tears.

I’ma close now.

But before I leave here today, I want you all to chew on this in the front of your minds. They say Jesus had 12 disciples but that ain’t true. They forgot Mary Magdalene, and Jesus’s own momma. So why Bessie? ’Cause Bessie was one of them too.



The poems appear with permission of Indolent Books. Copyright 2018 Kimberly Collins.

Bessie’s Resurrection by Kimberly Collins is available to pre-order now.


Notes

The last line of “Bessie Answers the Woman Question” is from an unpublished article, Chicago Defender, 1923.

Many of the blues lyrics that appear in the book are cited by Melanie E. Bratcher in Words and Songs of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone: Sound Motion, Blues Spirit, and African Memory (New York: Routledge, 2007).

About the Author

KimberlyACollinsKimberly A. Collins gave voice to the movement against domestic violence with her poem, “Remember My Name,” which has become a staple of Domestic Violence Awareness Month observances. Collins has facilitated writing-for-healing workshops for almost 30 years. Her inspirational weekly blog became the book Choose You! Wednesday Wisdom to Wake Your Soul. She attended Spelman College and holds a BA from Trinity University, an MFA in poetry from Spalding University, and an MA in American and African American literature from Howard University. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Collins is a Callaloo Fellow, and teaches English and creative writing at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Acknowledgments

“Why Bessie?” first appeared in The Berkeley Poetry Review, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Appears In


Issue 5

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