Brenda Marie Osbey

Brenda Marie Osbey

“This is no gift or tribute or right or holy thing but just a kind of telling, a chronicle to play back against those images that never quite made it to the evening news.”

Brenda Marie Osbey
Photo: C.B. Claiborne, 2004

Poet and writer, Brenda Marie Osbey is a New Orleans native and the author of multiple collections of poetry, including All Saints: New & Selected Poems (1997), which received the 1998 American Book Award, History and Other Poems (2013), and All Souls: Collected Poems (2015). Osbey has received numerous fellowships and awards, including a Camargo Foundation Fellowship for francophone culture studies and a Langston Hughes Award. She has been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Millay Colony, and the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, Harvard University. Studies of Osbey’s work have appeared in The Future of 25 Southern Letters (1996), The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (1997), Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women by Lynn Keller (1997), among others. She served as Poet Laureate of Louisiana from 2005-2007.

Evening News: A Letter to Nina Simone

a wail
a whoop
a line brought back from nowhere.
deep violet of memory,
stored up against hard times’ coming. 
we were righteous then, 
experienced in things we had not seen
but always knew
would pass this way. 

we had righteousness on our side. 

they say you stood before a small audience in
	new orleans last year and abused them for their smallness. 
not just their numbers
but their looks. 
their soulless way of sitting 
and waiting to be entertained.
they told me how you stood there and cursed them good. 
told me how they took it
for the sake
of all they used to be so long ago they never could forget.
could only say like the old folk, when cornered perhaps, 
said “i disremember” 

i  asked them what you wore. 

i remembered the years i struggled with the very private fear
that i would remain a child forever
and miss all that was major in our one moment of glory. 
even a child knows there is one such moment. 
even i had sense enough to see you and not weep.
even a child understood the words

and anyone could see we were all the evening news

and hear you sing—
at least that was what they called it.
it was my best girlfriend’s sister
who came up on us closed off in her bedroom
laughing over her cosmetics, her jewelry, her sex, her t.v.
and instead of sending us out
leaned there in the doorway and smiled.
“you two know so much, 
want to be so grown and everything, 
need to quit all that giggling 
and learn to listen to nina.”
that was late autumn.
aletha came into her own bedroom and sat between us on the bed. 
she turned up the volume
but did not change the station.
we watched her and her college friends
in dashikis and afros
on the evening news. 

that year marceline and i listened close
to the lyrics and the ways
the easy breaths and breathless lines
the underground silences
of you and roberta.
we argued and sassed,
slapped hands on our hips and the slightest provocation,
and learned when and when not to apologize for it.
two brown girls acting out, 
mothers looking out over our heads that way they had then
whenever we went so far we did not need to be told.
we gave our telephone numbers to those boys
with the hippest walks
the better grade of afro
the deep-changing voices, 
and we never took their calls. 
we danced the sophisticated sissy
the thing
the shake
the go-on
the soul strut.
we counted our girlfriends
“soul sister number 1”
“soul sister number 2”
marceline learned to cornrow
and i braided my older brother’s bush each night.
we were too much and we knew it.
we thought we understood it all. 

deep violet
deep violet

but that was years ago.
and you were in your glory then. 

while i was still younger than i knew or admitted, 
and studying in the south of france, 
i danced four nights out of five and all weekend,
my arms on the hips or shoulders
of some wiry brother from cameroun or ivory coast
senegal, algeria, panama, martinique,
one of only six or seven young black women at university
among the dozens and dozens of dark men who circled us
weaving their weightless cloth
their heavy guard. 
escorted when i would have been alone
fed when i had no hunger
driven when i lacked a destination
protected from the mere possibility of danger--
and danger to them
we knew
meant “frenchmen/
courted and cossetted 
and danced into sleeplessness. 
“you will be old one day, sister.
then you will sleep fine.”
but their hearts,
the dark wiry hearts of the brothers, 
were in the right places.

the foolish ones said
“you are like women of my country”
and feigned weaknesses no one would believe 
they ever even remotely had known. 
and often enough
had the immediate good sense 
to laugh at themselves
and then at the rest of us. 
the others did something like waiting. 
danced endlessly, and at the end of evening said
“i have this sister,
this nina.
play some for my sister here, man.
man, get up and put on that nina simone.”
and we sat in the silence in the dark
as one found the shiny vinyl
and put the needle to the darker groove.
we sat choked with roman cigarettes
too much dancing
too much good food.
we sat listening and did not touch.
we looked at one another’s hands
and read recognition there. 
one day we would be old.
we would sleep
and no longer know one another.
we sat into the night
until we grew hungry again and sick from the stale air.
we listened
we wailed
we did not touch
or bow down our heads.

and that is the meaning
of the word expatriate. 

if you live right
if you live right
if you live right

but what has living done for you? 

i heard your voice
over the radio late one night in cambridge 
telling how you never meant to sing.
whoever interviewed you hardly said a word.
he asked his questions
and you took your time.
you breathed long breaths between phrases, 
your speaking voice lighter
and less lived than i remembered.
you sang a line or two
and talked about your “life.”
i asked my question
directly into the speaker—
“what the hell did living do for you girl?”
i sat on the floor and drank my coffee.
i paced the carpet between your pauses.
i pulled my nightdress up in both hands and danced.
but i got no satisfaction that night.
and, for what it matters,
heaven did not come to me either.

don’t talk to me about soul.
don’t tell me about no damned soul.
years and years and years
of all night long
and-a where are you
and making time and doing right.
expatriate years.
years, woman, years.
where were you?

and then you sang “Fodder on My Wings”
with not a note of holy in your voice,
and what could i do?
a young woman,
i put myself to bed.

it was the following year 
that you cursed them down in new orleans.
dragged for them like muddy water.
i listened to the story on the telephone
or looked into the faces i came on in the streets.
i asked them
“did she wear?”
and do you think they could tell me?
all i asked the people
was what did the woman have on?

and what about it? 
if your country’s full of lies
if your man leaves you
if your lover dies
if you lose your ground and there is no higher ground
if your people leave you 
if you got no people
if your pride is hurting
if you got no pride, no soul
if you living in danger
if you living in mississippi, baltimore, detroit
if you walk right, talk right, pray right
if you don’t bow down 
if you hungry
if you old
if you just don’t know
outside-a you there is no /
place to / go
these are the expatriate years, these.
what is left. 

the people dragged their sorry asses out to see you
and you cursed them
you looked out into their faces, those you could see
and accused them
you called them down for all those years.
you sang the songs you sand when you were younger

and you made them pay.

and then
deep violet
and a longer time no one will speak of.

dear nina, 
i want to say to you how we did not mean it.
how we did not mean to give you up
to let you go off alone that way. 
i want to say how we were younger people, all of us. 
but none of it is true.
we used you
and we tossed what we could not use to the whites
and they were glad to get it.
we tossed you out into such danger
and closed our eyes and ears to what was to become of you
in those years-- 
deep violet--
and worst of all
we did not even say your name.
we ate you like good hot bread
fresh from the table of an older woman
and then we tossed the rest out for the scavengers. 
does it matter? 

does it matter when and how we did it to you?
does it matter we got no righteousness from it?
that we felt no shame?
does it matter we took all good things in excess then, 
and then again?
not only you
but all things?
does it matter we sometimes return to you now,
in the back rooms of childhood friends, 
forgiven lovers?
does it matter this is no gift or tribute or right or holy thing
but just a kind of telling
a chronicle to play back
against those images that never quite made it
to the evening news?

how cursed 
how sorry a mess of people can we be, nina
when outside-a you
there is no place
to go?

Against the Bone

i rubbed the length of your thigh and hip beneath the covers.
you pressed your face across the entire wide plain
between my breasts.
you spoke words into that space,
against the bone,
words i never fully heard
or cared to comprehend. 
it was enough to feel your hands working their hoodoo
in and around
the hollow places between my meat and bone.

distance and the years and the dying:
these stand between us, 
preventatives to the kind of desire
that makes no allowance 
for sobriety 
or discretion.
there is danger still between us here,
tactile as a child’s warm breath at prayer-time,
and remembrance like stones about our waists.
but this much i can tell:
how some mojo, once worked, 
cannot be undone
not for love or money
guilty dreamings
or death—
long years from now
on sacred ground
we will have these stones between us
to count
and weigh
and rub together.