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.