Poetry / Chet’la Sebree
:: Lady-in-Waiting, April 1789 ::
In front of looking glass, I admire my structure, my admixture of patterns, as I smooth down the gown that falls to my feet— bolt of Irish linen stitched into frock for evening, where I’ll stand two steps behind Patsy, not behind closed doors, make a lap around ballroom where candles dress walls, blue beads my neck, where my lips will be purple-puckered from a wine from a region often named. Bordeaux, I try. Corset, I say, making my mouth French—admiring my bone-bound breasts nearly cresting top of dress. In the mirror I practice, Dame de chambre, femme en attente— though everyone here calls me Mademoiselle Sally— esclave sounds better in this language, maîtresse much the same.
:: Paris: A Retrospective ::
Your stagger sought to untether—hand sack of flour against frame, heavy from body heavy with liquid lead. Was it me or Isabel you saw spread on the bed? ~ This is as old as time, mom said. First gran and her, then Mary and Bets. ~ Breathlessly: Sally. ~ I could not mend my body to break—cedar berry, tansy, cotton seed minced to tea, trying to force a bleed. Belly swollen, sick as if still on ocean. ~ I am embarrassed by my opening—bare blush of blossom, floral flush of cheek. A flood staining sheets in need of laundering. ~ Or maybe I didn’t open, but burst—a fracture that still aches in cold.
From the writer
:: Account ::
“Lady-in-Waiting, April 1789”
This poem is in the voice of Sally Hemings—Thomas Jefferson’s slave with whom he had at least six children—when she’s a young woman in Paris. In 1787, at the age of fourteen, Hemings traveled to France with Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Maria (Polly), to meet Jefferson and his eldest daughter, Martha (Patsy). In this poem, Hemings is trying on a new dress as she prepares to attend an event with Patsy as her lady’s maid.
In April 1789, Hemings has been in Paris for nearly two years. It is documented that, during this time, Hemings started to learn French, received wages for her work, and received fine linens for occasions such as the one that unfolds in the poem. While in France, she became Jefferson’s concubine—according to her son Madison Hemings—and, sometime in 1789, was pregnant.
When it was time for her to return to the States with Jefferson later that year, she refused to return with him since she could petition the French government for her freedom. In Madison Hemings’s memoir, Hemings states that his mother returned to the States because Jefferson promised her “extraordinary privilege” and that their children would be freed.
In this poem, Hemings tries on language—the terminology, the French—much in the same way that she tries on the dress. In this poem, Hemings tries on what “extraordinary privilege” may look like.
Many of the details of this poem—and perhaps even the impetus for it—come from my experience of trying on a replica of an eighteenth-century corset in the Theatre Department’s costume shop at the University of Virginia.
“Paris: A Retrospective”
In this poem, Hemings looks back at her first sexual experience with Jefferson; this poem follows many failed attempts to write about this experience. Every time I tried to write the poem in the “present” tense of the late 1780s I failed, so I tried to come at this first experience from a number of different angles. The two that were the most successful were this one, in which Hemings is trying to reconcile her past and unpack what happened to her, and one where Jefferson dreams of his first sexual experience with her; the idea of breaking, unintentionally, is present in both.
As a writer, I felt conflicted about writing about this moment since I know there is a level of violence I know I already inflict by imposing my literary imagination on the life of this woman who is voiceless in history. Not being able to find my way organically into a poem about her first sexual experience with Jefferson almost felt like a sign that I wasn’t meant to write about it, so I gave up on the prospect—especially since I couldn’t reconcile what happened to her.
I often wrestle with the nature of Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship and the nature of their first sexual experience since she was at most sixteen and he forty-six when she became his concubine in Paris. It occurred to me, however, that perhaps Hemings also felt conflicted. From there, it also occurred to me that perhaps both my imagined Sally and I might benefit from the distance of retrospection.
In addition to Hemings wrestling with the nature of the experience, she is also wrestling with identity and motherhood in this poem. Hemings contemplates whether or not she’s “special,” wondering if Jefferson saw her or another slave named Isabel—whom he’d requested travel with his daughter Polly to Paris, though she couldn’t because she was pregnant—or if this experience was just her matrilineal legacy. Hemings was not the only woman in her family who was a concubine or had a sexual relationship with a white man. In this poem, she looks at the legacy of this through her grandmother, her mother, her sister Mary—who was in a common law marriage with a white man who informally freed her—and her niece Betsy. Hemings also wrestles with her first pregnancy in this poem—whether or not to have this child when she’s dealing with so much else, including being an ocean away from the majority of her family.
Ultimately, it felt fitting that Hemings needed the time, distance, and space from this moment to contemplate it. It also felt fitting that, ultimately, she also has no answers.
Chet’la Sebree was the 2014 – 2016 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry. She is a graduate of American University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and the Richard H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Her poetry has most recently appeared in Guernica, Gulf Coast, and Crazyhorse.