Three Poems by Ellen June Wright

Early In My Visit, Mother Calls Me into the Bathroom

It's been years since I've seen my mother naked: 

      the breasts that fed nine children collapsed 

upon her chest, her fawn-brown skin, 

     the age spots on her back, her legs better than mine. 

She fills a yellow basin with warm water and soaps a cloth. 

     Then begins to do all she can with the washrag 

until it's time for me to take it from her 

     and wash the expanse of her light-brown back. 

She stands bent forward, and I continue to wash 

     her with as much vigor as she once washed me. 

Her privates are still private, a task only for her, 

     and once we are through, she motions for the hand-held 

shower head, turns the knob until water comes 

     and I spray her clean like a tiny car. 

The entire time we perform this ritual, 

     I'm thinking of setting words down so I never forget 

what it's like to see my mother's nakedness 

     against the word of God because needs must

and I think He understands we have laid down 

     our arms and replaced them with olive branches.


Mother Tells Me of the Ghost That Touched Her 

as it passed through her room 

     and the water that drips on her foot 

at night. I eye the ceiling above her bed. 

There's no sign of moisture and as for the ghost,

     I remember fifty years ago we were lowered 

into water together—then reborn and remind her 

     of the state of the dead: The dead know nothing. 

They sleep until resurrection’s trumpets 

     sound. She looks at me, her almost centenarian

eyes begging me to believe. I remind her of 

     our baptism and the oaths we took. 

I’m an undergraduate in the university of the aged—  

     taking mental notes, cramming gerontology, 

with a concentration in dementia 

     in a way I never thought I would have to, 

and if I live as long, who will remind me 

     what I believe and clear the ghosts 

like stinging scorpions from my mind.


Of Known and Unknown Worlds

A day after I left your island, I called to let you know 

I arrived home safely and you chided me 

for siding with caregivers who make your life a misery, 

and something in me gave way like a lung collapsing. 

You don't always know what you're saying, but I'm not sure 

if this is dementia or a lucid moment.

It's just short of a month since I stepped away from my almost 

predictable life into the chaos of your almost centennial life, 

into the loneliness of women stranded in a house together 

because it’s been years since you could live alone. 

What kind of daughter leaves a mother so old? 

How do I define myself apart from you and all I owe? 

Once, we were two voyagers, you and I, when I was five following 

you like a duckling on planes and trains and long car rides, 

into the unknown world called America. We were going there. 

I didn't know why. It's time to go, you must’ve said. In those days, 

nobody told children why, only that we must dress, pack 

and go. You were the embodiment of the known world. 

More than fifty years later, I'm still drawn to you as though 

you had a magnetic center and I am iron splinters.

Ellen June Wright is an American poet with British and Caribbean roots. Her work has been published in Plume, Tar River, Missouri Review, Verse Daily, Gulf Stream, Solstice, Louisiana Literature, Leon Literary Review, North American Review, Prelude, and Gulf Coast, and is forthcoming in the Cimarron Review. She’s a Cave Canem and Hurston/Wright alumna and a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee.