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On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba©2018 by Brenda Marie Osbey
00:00 / 06:19
Pauline Lumumba, On Contemplating...


On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba

and accompanying commentary at:


digital poetry series of

Academy of American Poets

©2018 by Brenda Marie Osbey

All Rights Reserved to the Author.


   Poems  by  Brenda Marie Osbey

Death by Water Suite

      (Heavy Water #74: going down)


© 2016, 2020 by Brenda Marie Osbey

All Rights Reserved to the Author.





the version of my father’s brother’s drowning i was raised on and prefer

is the one in which his friends and cousins –

having lost their week’s pay to him at cards

having drunk not quite enough to down the piddling affront –

held him there below till it was done.

they must have stood the three of them

and left him there to drift a while

the soberness of their act

falling swift as the temple virgins’ shared veil

thin chilly cover against the frank and palpitating country night.


i like to think they did not brook the possibility of talk

though like as not they did.

like as not the younger cousin tried and failed.

and likely it was he who waded out into the water

glass-black and stroking, kissing at his hips

and tried to cry but couldn’t

until the others rushed him

pulled him to the grassy water’s edge.

must have been quite handsome that one.


why shouldn’t he have been that smooth opaque we used to

call just-pretty-black?

in my own dreams of drowning it is always so:


i find him handsome

almost too dear to look on in the starry swampy night

easy in his movement the way some men just are –

easy in his laughter, his gait, his clothes –

but no one’s ever said

though surely someone knows.


how long they stood that way is anybody’s guess

before going on –

neither home nor away

but to her –

to tell the thing they’d done

to find the gumption to say they’d drowned her son

witless honesty to match the stupid intimate human act

down the path? one begins

over near where we go out wading sometime in the evening?

we killed him out there, auntie he interrupts, the younger one,

impatient to begin the clean clear suffering that will hound them now for all their too-short lives

we killed him.



drowned in the night

drifted four more

coming up at last

half-eaten puffed up water-something

eyes gone

lips gone

perfect teeth exposed in nothing like a grin

no longer man or son or friend –

some freakish

cousin (once-twice-removed)

to the thing we all swam out from to the light.



and there below the less than potent undertow

floating uncle-boy himself

face some transfigured riddled mask

realizing – no doubt to soon – this is no young fellows teasing gag –

only to surface in the dullish mid-late-morning of ordinary day:

icy teeth

eyeholes nests for quivering things

logged hands that carry

harmless enough brownish mosses

a something adrift

adrift agog and gaping about for kin






these dreams run all the same:

you go into the water wearing pearls of every color

– and nothing more –

strands of ochre black and rose, steel grey and bone.

perhaps someone is calling – youre not quite sure –

perhaps a something from behind –

and go on ahead uncaring into the still warm waters.


if you see him then or not you never can say for sure.

at some point he is simply there and

unlike deathsheads of film and fact and children’s tales

he is lovely

lovely and still and smooth and perfectly perfectly glass-black.

and you know-him know him

know exactly who he is


rooted then in the glass-black water

until a weight

a heaviness –


this is drowning you say foolishly.

yes, he answers in the language of the deads

– in which you are by then apparently sufficiently fluent –

this is drowning.

it lasts a while he says, just making conversation.


he does not smile

no strike or flail at all


you breathe the salted water

and go down





he’d come into the city young my father

too young but strong and rearing to have a go

to make his living boxing.

had stamina and punch –

good punch the ones who knew agreed

good punch, swift solid feet


country-boy whose family owned near everything he could see

– none of the drive that comes from hunger or from need –

plain unshakeable ability

to do a thing dead-on

that and a punch to strike and fell and maim.


his brothers all died violently or insane.

the one brown-skinned sister whod left home a girl never did return.

brother drowned –

like a dog the story goes –


drowned-him-dead –

would-be twin sister gone just hours, minutes after birth

and him come in to the city to work the ring

brothers all died violently or insane.





i have told this story in small after-hours gatherings of friends

and as early morning pillowtalk

have gone round it in my head now many years

and it seems to me he must have been beautiful that one.

have come to know him some –

one cannot know so lovely a man too well after all –

wouldn’t care to, truth be told.


so so many years now

brothers and both sisters dead

old man and woman gone and buried and drifted together again

only my father left fit and well into a frank old age

now fallen too – surprised by death, they said –



who knows which dreams and grudges the dead hold to?

who knows how long until it’s safe again

to call them one by one

by name?

00:00 / 01:48

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Black History Month Reading

New Orleans Cultural Economy

Embrace the Culture

AS YET UNTITLED: a Seasonal Suite


©2015 by Brenda Marie Osbey




it is that time of year when the killings increase

season of hate and of violence

puling entitlement of those with only blank whiteness to trade

to stand behind before

to hold up


frayed through at the center making cross-eyes at the dark world beyond

its own small patch

and blood on those fields

seeped into and under how many well- or poorly-paved sidewalks

highways littered with shells

campuses littered in candles

and the rant and rant and rant of what


how many suddenly vacant streets

this nation waking from its own vast dullish sleep

into whitest direst deepest nightmare reflections



it is any day date year month time

it is time doing time

it is hard sun in regions without borders or bounds

all-inclusive all-enveloping explosion of hard daylight

where night somehow fails

to encompass embrace condescend

fails to fall

unlike the bodies humped

spattered outlined heaping the

customary after-crime scenes of suburban cul-de-sacs

small city traffic lanes major metropolitan area thoroughfares rural mail routes

kindergartens gymnasiums waterfronts campuses driveways churches churches



no longer interval or spell neither span nor while nor stretch nor term but season

having evolved as do flora fauna land formations hurricanes

thundering up out of oceans across seas bearing

mitochondria of lynch mobs of men and of women of children mutating

quickly stealthily away

from implement drudge shifting swiftly morphing to

appliance shifting continually perceptibly imperceptibly to

bureaucracy industry post-industrial apparat service-oriented




era and epoch season absent reckoning absent succor

inclement both to shadow and to shade to twilight and to dusk

that time of year


to the gloaming

to nightfall

to the dark

to the black.

©2015 by Brenda Marie Osbey. All Rights Reserved to the Author.

First published in the anthology, What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump edited by Martín Espada. Northwestern, 2019.

00:00 / 02:54

an excerpt from HISTORY



“But I am tired today/ of history, its patina’d clichés/ of endless evil.”

from “The Islands”

by Robert Hayden



and so we begin again our weary wearied and wearying lessons

because we have not learned them well enough.

only this time

without chanties about some ocean-blue

because for us

all oceans are forever red.

and we begin this time without the head and finger count

for whats the real measure of human loss

once figures climb into the tens of tens of thousands

multiplied by however many ships debarking from however many nations

to archipelagos of death, to continents of doom?

and still for all that chatter

gorée persisting into the red and golden sun

its few hundred or so inhabitants

making the daily ferry run

barely even eye-ing the western born

borne on across unroiling waters —

and boys are playing at games

innocent as all of time.

time and even more time is what has dullened us so.

for we are tired of lessons.

and yet it is to lessons we must go.

the looming sea is all about the wide wide world.

and it is wide

oh yes it is

the world is wide and wide and full of evil ides.

and the history of the world if we would tell it

would strike us all down dead upon the spot marked


its greenish stain like money in the poker-mens upturned pot.



oh and oh and i am weary with it all.

and here is yet another castle

another monument to look upon.

and docents with their sad or singing eyes —

the sharp accentuated hush that follows as they speak

men fingering chains and such

and women who will not turn their eyes

and children who look about beneath the words that take so long to tell —

the history of this world which if we tell it straight

will kill us all before we even taste the smell of even the most rudimentary hate.

on with it then.

then once and once and oh so long ago.

we can only tell so much at any telling.

we have lives — such as they are — and other work to do

and can perhaps only stand the telling of this history

in parts one and two.



in bambara and shango

wolof and peul tshihiba twi éwondo

in sara and sérère

in toupouri hausa mandara boulou

in yoruba kinyarwanda and ki-kongo

and all the languages around the hardy cape then

let us tongue and tongue as the aperture of the hardiest of the old-line trumpeters.

and this time

let us try for once to get it right.

and this time let us tongue it deep and well into the night.




and bring me now the bones of diogo cão

and bring the shroud of pope nicky the vth

bring me the cape of old victor schoelcher

bring me the bastards

and let me have my way

and let it last until i’ve earned at last my full pay.



          (the sun

           bright disk cast against the sky

           that shines without warming ever

           wasted gold set against blue skies that are not mine

           nor ever will be.)



o são tomé

o são vicente

o cape o cape of all good hope

elmina and cape coast

île de gorée

cabo de delgado

fort osu


all of them “ages ago/ last night/ when we were young”

shame shame of ghana

thirty-six of forty-two built there as barter

elmina grandest patroness of them all

wings of floors reconstructed into such grandeur:

“the womens quarters have a most unpleasant, most befould odor”

and thus the viewing balconies up above the sweltering human hum.



fort and forteress



but never you mind about that

for theres enough to go around and then –

300 miles of coast

60 known castles

remains of half as many


monuments to green and gold and silver god



cape coast built by hardy swedes 16 & 53

fort osu 16 & 61 by the very captives who would stand and die there

rotting blood into the

hard packed earth.


lust for gold

lust for blackest black of gold.

all so much whoring in the veins of a continent laid to waste

trading all along the coast

capturing and herding deep inside the hot interior

“oh, there be wealth enough for plenty,

and kingdom come before we bleeds em dry.”



“decreed: that greater benin will export no more men as chattels; for to continue in that way should only weaken the core of our kingdom.”

women and children remain free, however,

to be enslaved at any time.


and kingdom come indeed.


see also



kingdom of kongo

sierra leone

gold coast

ivory coast

bight of biafra

bight of benin

southeast of africa from good hope to delgado and all of madagascar


why is it called cape of good hope?



sugar cotton coffee metals tobacco

shipping finance insurance


such cities as amsterdam, liverpool, bristol

stade-en-lande whitehaven la rochelle and boston

rotterdam newport nantes lisbon

such kingdoms as _______________ (fill in the blank)

and along north africa herself indian ocean

and so-called middle east

sahara of shifting footprints


why is it called, do you believe, cape of good hope?


and then of course that red red red red sea


worlds continents of exclusion

la trahison des clercs

the disironic unwillingness

of colonial powers to self-destruct —


mercantable movable property


res —

tyrannies of words thrown ad lib against the abject body —



there is no history of this world that is not written in black.


— from History and Other Poems ©2012 by Brenda Marie Osbey

Read “Litany of Our Lady” and accompanying commentary at:

Poetry Society of America


©2010, 2020 by Brenda Marie Osbey



our lady of the sidewalks
the pavements and the crumbling brick
the mortar rock and oyster-shell roads
our lady of sorrows and sadnesses
of intolerable agonies tolerated daily
of drifters grifters scrappers and scrapers
our lady of dudes and dicks and pricks
of petty thieves and of whoremongers
of piss-swelled gutters
and dives
and the grimed over windows knotty-haired children peer through;
our lady
our lady of boys shot down in the dark
dying in open lots along lesser used roads leading out of town
of old men beneath interstates
     sitting, standing, walking a block or so away and back;
our lady of lost and found and forgotten
cast-off ditched
of what was and never will be again
of aggrieved and bereft
accused indicted surrendered up to death
of old tar-colored women in plain or checkered housedresses
     telling aloud their rosaries and rosaries
          and rosaries of faith;
our lady of ladies
and of church-ladies-in-waiting
of young girls with hard uncertain breasts
     and promises of school and school
          and more school even than that;

our lady of go-cups and fictionary tours
cigar bars absinthe bars
of coffee houses open all night and churches closed all day
     and wait;
our lady of antiques dealers dealing in saints
     in crosses, weeping cemetery angels, prayer cards
     in praline mammies, cigar shoppe indians
     in dwarf nigger jockeys whose heads have been lopped off
          and stand
          one hand outstretched, one cocked at the hip
          seeming not to be waiting but bargaining dealing
               for the return of their heads
          their heads their perfectly round perfectly lovely
             little nappy nappy heads;

our lady
our lady of tired buildings listing to one side
and brick-between-cypress posts that simply will stand
as houses themselves give way around falling-down stairs
leaving only a something
a memory of a structure
of spanish-tiled roofs and batten shutters
in a swamp
of a city
of ironworks and of plaster
o, lady lady
our lady of anything
at all.

THE EVENING NEWS: A Letter to Nina Simone

©1986, 1988, 2020 by Brenda Marie Osbey



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 out 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 then 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 at 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/

whitemen” –

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 in 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

and 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 along that way.

i want to say how we were a younger people, all of us.

but none of it is true.

we used you

and we tossed what w could not use to the whites

and they were glad to get is.

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?

Author's Note on Song Lyrics:

The line, “heaven did not come to me either,” is based on the song “If You Pray Right (Heaven Belongs to You)" by Nina Simone. The lines, “outside-a you/there is no/place to go,” are from Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband.”


        — from the collected poems, All Souls: Essential Poems by Brenda Marie Osbey (LSU, 2015).

                       Previously published in All Saints: New and Selected Poems (LSU, 1997), and The American Voice, Summer 1988.

                              ©1986, 1997, 2020 by Brenda Marie Osbey.

All Rights Reserved to the Author.


by Brenda Marie Osbey

All Rights Reserved to the Author.


Works presented here are copyright-protected,

and may not be copied, downloaded, reprinted, recorded, performed,

or otherwise used, circulated, transmitted, or distributed,

by any means without

prior written permission from the author

and/or her legal representative/s.

Copyright infringement will be pursued to the full extent of the law.

Request Permission.

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