Visions

Years ago I worked at Wyoming’s St. Stephens Indian Mission. One of my favorite places to be was at the home of blind Matilda, an old Native American whose face truly was lined in all the right places. So often she would look out on the dry hills as if a vision were there, calling to her, and she would tilt her head and listen.

During a week at home with my artist mother, I came across an Arizona Highways photograph of an Indian woman who looked just like Matilda. “I want to paint her.”

“In what medium?” my mother asked.

“Pen and ink.”

So began my two day lesson on the strokes needed to be a week-end artist. And then? I was on my own.

My lady took shape first with my pencil–so many hesitant marks, so many erasures. The eyes vexed me for days, but gradually, her features took shape beneath my hand. Stroke by stroke her wonderful face, weathered with age and lined with wisdom, began to emerge. And then the miracle of pen and ink. How often did I return to look at her, to touch her cheek, feel the texture of her scarf and the coarseness of her hair?

One week later I sat at the easel, marveling at my finished work, amazed that she seemed so alive. My mother came in and stood next to me. She leaned in close to the artwork and asked that question I had never voiced with Matilda. “I wonder what she sees.”

Birthday Morning

Before dawn, Carrie slipped out of bed. She dressed quickly, tucking the red ribbon into her jean pocket. Outside, the stars flecked silver over the cherry tree. She pulled herself up, curled around the branch, and crawled into the tree’s lap. Shimmying up and up, all alone while wet leaves dripped water on her face and neck. For a second she wished she were still under warm covers.

But Carrie remembered last night on the porch when her twin brother Cameron bragged. “See where Jupiter hits that branch? That’s how far I climbed today.” He was always first—to ride a bike, swim. Even first in the alphabet. “I marked it, too,” he said. Right then, Carrie made up her mind to climb the tree. Tomorrow, on their tenth birthday, she would be Number One. She’d show him. She’d bring back cherries from the top branch and dump them on his head.

Daylight came. Carrie spied Cameron’s marker. She pushed on. Her arms burned. Bark scraped her cheek. But she climbed past his string. Stopping to catch her breath, she sat on crisscrossed branches. Cherries glinted. She nibbled a few, down to their tart, red-black center. She let the juice swish in her mouth. Higher up, a glossy limb aimed at the sky. She felt for her red ribbon. I’ll put it where Cam can’t miss it. Today, I’m Queen of the Cherry Tree.

A small wind blew the leaves apart and there, in secret, was a tiny, empty nest. All at once an idea, quiet as a bird’s feather, came to her. “Today’s my birthday, and I can do anything I want.” She tied the ribbon into a bow and tucked it into the nest. A hiding place, way above Cam’s marker. Only the chickadees know.

Carrie climbed down, down, until tree roots bulged under her feet. Her sleepy-eyed brother sat on the porch steps.

“How far did you get?” he asked.
“Pretty far—for me.”
“Not like the King, though.”
“Nope.”
“All by yourself.”
“Yep.”
“Happy Birthday, Carrie.”
“You, too, Cam.”

The tree leaves winked at her. Only the chickadees know.

Captive

If I am looking for a lull or a reprieve from the world, Tretheway’s poetry is not the place to go. Her poems find expression not only because of her own mixed-race family roots, but because of her scholarly research into colonial art works depicting the mulattos and mestizos and those whom history has forgotten. From these sources she creates poetry that is unflinching in its depiction of slavery. In one poem I imagine the medieval artist’s representation of Cosmas and Damian as they graft the black leg onto the white patient. Tretheway reflects that “The Ethiop is merely a body, featureless in a coffin, so black he has no face.” In another poem I see in my mind’s eye Juan Rodriguez Juarez painting of the woman and the “red beads/yoked at her throat like a necklace of blood/her face so black she nearly disappears.”

The poem I want to hold in memory is her exquisite meditation on Velazquez’s Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus. It is not Jesus, but the mulatta who is the centerpiece. She is the copper bowl and the jars in front of her; she is “the stain on the wall the size of her shadow–the color of blood. . .” Tretheway gently dares me to share the lot of the ones held in thrall. Kitchen Maid calls me into captivity, into my own complicity, my own prejudice and bias:”How not to see/in this gesture/the mind/of the colony?” Thrall is the perfect title for her stunning, troubling collection of poems.

Crossings

Two years ago I was in New York, strolling along the Brooklyn Bridge, snapping photos, trying to capture this historic, marvelous structure. Not once, though, did I think of the Bridge as integral to immigrants. I relegated that honor to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge forced me to look anew. He added another twist to his play about undocumented Italian dock workers: no matter whether “legal” or not, we carry our own skewed sense of what it means to feel safe. Eddie’s fixation on Catherine becomes greater than any responsibility to offer sanctuary. What shapes a view from a crossing point? If only the bridges could talk.