The Comrade by Kathleen McClung

A pantoum for Anne Sullivan, 1866-1936

If I dwell within old walls I will always be blind.
No miracles in the Tewksbury almshouse,
only work and death,
only scrubbing planks beneath my shins.

No miracles in the Tewksbury almshouse,
no answer to my prayers for brother Jimmie,
only scrubbing planks beneath my shins,
cobwebs I touch but cannot see.

No answer to my prayers for brother Jimmie,
no priest or gravestone. Only a small box,
cobwebs I touch but cannot see.
Where do his bones lie?

No priest or gravestone. Only a small box.
I will burst free, learn to read.
Where do his bones lie?
I will sign my name in bluest ink.

I will burst free, learn to read.
Men come to my aid—headmaster, eye surgeon.
I will sign my name in bluest ink,
grip documents like hammers—diploma, train ticket.

Men come to my aid—headmaster, eye surgeon.
What verb for all I do—Beseech? Demand?
Grip documents like hammers—diploma, train ticket
south from Boston to Tuscumbia.

What verb for all I do—Beseech? Demand?
So many words, so many destinations.
South from Boston to Tuscumbia
I travel to a girl whose family owned slaves.

So many words, so many destinations
for those who would be free. We must work.
I travel to a girl whose family owned slaves,
quarrel with Helen’s father on my first day.

For those who would be free we must work:
I spell words into her palm,
quarrel with Helen’s father on my first day,
rue my own for leaving us. Again, what verb?

I spell words into her palm—
D-O-L-L  M-U-G  W-A-T-E-R
rue my own for leaving us. Again, what verb?
Together we enter silence, smash it to bits.

D-O-L-L  M-U-G  W-A-T-E-R
We are each thirsty. I will never leave her.
Together we enter silence, smash it to bits.
Such fine ribbons she has. And frocks and shoes.

We are each thirsty. I will never leave her,
never govern her. No, usher over thresholds.
Such fine ribbons she has. And frocks and shoes.
Braille at Perkins. Marx at Radcliffe.

Never govern her. No, usher over thresholds—
suffrage rallies, rococo theatres, union halls thick with smoke.
Braille at Perkins. Marx at Radcliffe.
She travels far, far from Alabama.

Suffrage rallies, rococo theatres, union halls thick with smoke.
Who teaches whom, guides these expeditions of fingertips?
She travels far, far from Alabama
and I, from Tewksbury. I refuse chains.

Who teaches whom, guides these expeditions of fingertips?
Move and reach. Climb, discover and pull
and I, from Tewksbury, I refuse chains.
Seize more verbs, comrades and companions.

Move and reach. Climb, discover and pull.
Fling open the shutters, unfurl sentences, bright banners.
Seize more verbs, comrades and companions.
We have only our hands, only love and will.

Fling open the shutters, unfurl sentences, bright banners.
If I dwell within old walls I will always be blind.
We have only our hands, only love and will,
only work and death.


Kathleen McClung is the author of Almost the Rowboat (Finishing Line Press, 2013) and her poems appear in Mezzo Cammin, Unsplendid, Atlanta Review, Ekphrasis, West Trestle Review, A Bird Black as the Sun: California Poets on Crows and Ravens, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she was the winner of the Rita Dove, Maria W. Faust, and Shirley McClure poetry prizes and finalist for the Morton Marr, Elinor Benedict, Margaret Reid, and 49th Parallel poetry prizes. McClung serves as sponsor-judge of the sonnet category of the Soul-Making Keats literary competition and as a reviewer for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, sponsored by the Stanford University Libraries. She teaches writing and literature classes at Skyline College and the Writing Salon. She lives in San Francisco. www.kathleenmcclung.com.

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