Two Poems

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 Sallyesclave 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.